Bowl invitations will be extended Sunday afternoon, and, believe it or not, Tennessee is expected to receive one.
The Volunteers closed out a 3-7 regular season Saturday with a 34-13 loss to No. 5 Texas A&M in Neyland Stadium. Three wins are typically half the number teams need to qualify for a bowl game under NCAA guidelines, but those were scrapped this year once the coronavirus pandemic started altering the number of games different leagues would stage.
Despite the reality of entering a postseason with seven losses in eight games after a 2-0 start, Tennessee seems up for the task.
"We're preparing like we're going to be in a bowl, and if we're not, we're not," Vols coach Jeremy Pruitt said. "That's the only way we know how to do it — just prepare and move forward like we were."
A pair of Atlantic Coast Conference teams with 6-5 regular seasons, Boston College and Pittsburgh, recently announced they would be opting out of bowl games. Those programs cited the grind of this season amid a pandemic as the chief reason.
Tennessee's players won't get to recapture the atmosphere that accompanied last season's 23-22 topping of Indiana at the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Florida, but they do seem open for whatever awaits.
"It would be very important, and we would love the opportunity," sixth-year senior center Brandon Kennedy said. "At one point, we didn't even think we would have this season, so to have this opportunity to play and to have one more opportunity would be a blessing."
Said junior cornerback Alontae Taylor: "If they give us a bowl game, we're going to be ready to play."
Fifth-year senior quarterback Jarrett Guarantano, whose 30 career starts for the Vols included the first seven games this season, entered the NCAA transfer portal less than an hour after Saturday's setback.
Guarantano was just 12-18 as the starter, but he did guide the Vols to a 30-24 road upset of No. 21 Auburn in 2018 and rallied them from a 22-9 deficit in January's Gator Bowl. This season, the 6-foot-4, 230-pounder from New Jersey completed 103 of 166 passes (62.1%) for 1,112 yards with six touchdowns and four interceptions.
Three of Guarantano's four picks were returned for touchdowns, with Kentucky collecting two of those and Auburn safety Smoke Monday racing 100 yards on Nov. 21. Guarantano played one more possession after Monday's interception but never played again.
The NCAA this year is allowing a free year of eligibility to seniors.
A rough finale
Tennessee senior outside linebacker Deandre Johnson opened this season by earning Southeastern Conference honors for collecting 2.5 sacks in the 31-27 win at South Carolina. His performance Saturday was also memorable, but for the wrong reasons.
After the Vols took a 7-0 lead and nearly recovered a Kellen Mond fumble on Texas A&M's second play from scrimmage, a third-and-10 for the Aggies became third-and-5 when Johnson was flagged for jumping into the neutral zone. Texas A&M picked up the first of its 10 third-down conversions on the ensuing play.
Yet that gaffe paled greatly to a hands-to-the-face penalty he incurred after the Vols had pulled within 17-13 on a 46-yard scoring strike from J.T. Shrout to Cedric Tillman with 4:08 before halftime. Facing third-and-14, Mond threw incomplete, but Johnson's penalty gave the Aggies a fresh set of downs at their 47-yard line, and they capitalized by scoring six plays later to lead 24-13 at the break.
"I didn't see it, and we had them in third-and-14 or whatever," Pruitt said. "You obviously can't hit the quarterback late. You can't do it, right? I don't care if you get close to the quarterback, but you avoid the quarterback. It's third-and-14, and they would have punted the football, and we would have had a chance at that point in time because we were moving the football pretty good and had a pretty good rhythm going.
"It's those little bitty things, and you can look at them every week. There is not much difference in winning and losing in this league, and the first thing you have to do is not beat yourself. You've got to make the other team beat you."
Odds and ends
Tennessee did not allow an opposing 100-yard rusher during the regular season. ... Taylor on Pruitt calling the defensive plays due to coordinator Derrick Ansley's absence: "You've just got to adapt to the situation and go out there and play ball. There is only one football. Go out there and make plays." ... Freshman receiver Jalin Hyatt made his first start. ... Sophomore inside linebacker Henry To'o To'o had a career-high 13 tackles. ... Saturday was the latest date for a regular-season game in Tennessee history.