KNOXVILLE — Tennessee's roller-coaster 2019 football season came to a close in roller-coaster fashion Thursday night, when the Volunteers led early but had to rally from 13 points behind with less than five minutes to play to defeat Indiana 23-22 at the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Florida.
The Vols ended the year with an 8-5 record, winners of seven of their final eight games.
Today, the Times Free Press looks back at five stories that defined Tennessee's tumultuous season:
1. Jarrett Guarantano: You take the good. You take the bad. You take them both and there you have the Vols' embattled quarterback. Nobody could have imagined this season going this way for Guarantano, who found his way from a poor beginning, to losing his job, to the Alabama fiasco, to regaining his job, to the bowl win that ended the roller-coaster ride. However, coach Jeremy Pruitt never wavered in his public support of Guarantano, the redshirt junior who played a key part in all eight wins — four as a starter, four as a reserve.
2. Jeremy Banks saga: The sophomore linebacker was dismissed from the program after a second — yes, second — video was released by TMZ on Oct. 4, the day before Tennessee's home game against SEC East rival Georgia. That footage showed him slapping a phone out of the hand of a girl who was recording him on the night of Aug. 24 leaving a party he and some other Tennessee athletes were unable to get into. The first video showed Banks' arrest in the early hours of Sept. 15 after he was pulled over for making an illegal U-turn on Tennessee's campus. (Banks had two interceptions as the Vols defeated the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga 45-0 the night before.) Note: Pruitt didn't answer a question recently about whether there was a path for Banks to return to the program.
3. Senior guidance, freshmen emergence: Both were vital to the Vols down the stretch. Tennessee undoubtedly will miss players such as receivers Marquez Callaway and Jauan Jennings, linebackers Daniel Bituli and Darrell Taylor and safety Nigel Warrior, each of whom played a big role in the Vols recovering from a 1-4 start. What also happened down the stretch was that the freshman class — which came in with much acclaim — started to come into its own. Eric Gray rushed for 332 yards and four touchdowns in the final two games; Ramel Keyton made a pair of great catches in the bowl win; inside linebacker Henry To'o To'o appears poised to step into Bituli's role; and the Vols have options in the secondary. The combination helped sparked the Vols to a winning streak they will try to stretch to seven games when Charlotte — coached by Chattanooga native Will Healy — visits Sept. 5 for the 2020 season opener.
4. "The Meetings": It took nearly two months for the details of two separate Sept. 21 meetings after the Vols' 34-3 loss at Florida — one directly after the game, another when the team got off the plane in Knoxville — to come out, but long before that it was clear that Tennessee was a different team after that game in Gainesville. The only losses from that point forward were to Georgia and Alabama, two teams that were ranked in the top three when Tennessee faced them and that fought for spots in the College Football Playoff down the stretch.
5. Trey Smith: There perhaps wasn't a better story in the country than the mammoth 6-foot-6, 323-pounder's return to college football after the occurrence of blood clots in his lungs on two separate occasions. The clots first threatened, then ultimately took away his 2018 season. Smith played in every game — starting 11 — for the Vols and earned first-team All-Southeastern Conference honors. He was noncommittal after Thursday's win about his future and whether he would decide to forgo his final year of eligibility and enter the NFL draft pool.