If every Jarrett Guarantano performance transpired like the one two years ago inside Jordan-Hare Stadium, there would be no talk of a quarterback change at Tennessee.
Nor would there be a four-game losing streak, either.
Guarantano notched his first career 300-yard passing effort at No. 21 Auburn in 2018, completing 21 of 32 attempts for 328 yards and two touchdowns in leading the Volunteers to a 30-24 upset triumph. He outperformed Tigers counterpart Jarrett Stidham, who had guided Auburn to as high as No. 2 nationally the season before and is now with the New England Patriots.
"I don't know how many explosive plays we had that day," Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt said this week. "We couldn't run the football, but we could create explosive plays, and that was the difference in the game. Probably the two most important things when you talk about outcomes of games are turnovers and explosive plays, whether you create them or whether you give them up."
Tennessee and No. 23 Auburn meet again this Saturday night at Jordan-Hare in a game that the Southeastern Conference added in late July to create its coronavirus-altered, 10-game schedule consisting solely of league contests.
Current running back Ty Chandler and current receiver Josh Palmer each had receptions of at least 25 yards two years ago for the Vols at Auburn, as did former receivers Marquez Callaway and Jauan Jennings. Guarantano's arm offset Tennessee's inability to get its ground game going against a Tigers defensive front headed by Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson, as the Vols rushed for 68 yards and 1.9 yards per carry.
"That was a very, very tough loss, and there is no doubt," Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. "We turned the ball over. They made some plays when they had to. We didn't play real well that day, and they had something to do with that.
"We're glad to have another chance of playing them again."
Guarantano, now a fifth-year senior, is listed as the starting quarterback this week but is coming off the 24-13 loss at Arkansas on Nov. 7, when his head hit the turf hard after a third-quarter scramble. Pruitt said this week that backups Harrison Bailey, Brian Maurer and J.T. Shrout have benefited by having more reps, adding that Bailey's command of the offense has really improved in recent days.
All four quarterbacks have played for the Vols this season, and Malzahn wouldn't be surprised if he encounters multiple quarterbacks Saturday night.
"It's such an interesting year to where everything is different anyway," Malzahn said. "The fact you may see different quarterbacks is probably not as big a deal this year compared to some years, just because you have to be prepared for all the different challenges. It's probably good that we've had a little bit of extra time to prepare, but they've had extra time to prepare also."
The brilliance of Guarantano's performance two years ago at Auburn transpired on third down, where he led the Vols to a whopping 10 conversions. He had four completions on third-and-10 that resulted in a new set of downs, as well as one third-and-8, one third-and-9 and one third-and-13.
"I just remember after that game how he had this crazy stat line, which was great for us," senior outside linebacker Deandre Johnson said. "He kept our defense fresh and off the field. That was a great game for him and a great performance all around."
Tennessee trailed 10-3 late in the first quarter before Guarantano helped engineer a 27-7 surge.
"He played really well that day," Pruitt said. "I felt like our wide receivers made a lot of plays that day, and our O-line held up in protection enough for us to get the ball out. It was very typical. We kind of have a history there of playing against Auburn. It seems like if you can get through the first couple of drives – they play so fast – you get accustomed to playing them.
"I was telling the defensive guys that the teams that play Auburn every year have more familiarity with their offense, and the teams that don't play them every year seem to struggle. It's important to understand what Auburn tries to do philosophically on offense. We have really worked hard to get that ingrained into our defensive players."
Auburn freshman defensive end Jay Hardy, the former four-star prospect out of McCallie School who picked the Tigers over Tennessee, has yet to play this season for position coach Rodney Garner due to leg and ankle injuries. Malzahn said this week that he believes the 6-foot-4, 299-pounder will play this season but did not specify whether Saturday night would mark his debut.
Malzahn described Hardy as "an athlete still learning the college game," and Hardy's perseverance has been admired by teammates.
"He's handled it great," sophomore defensive end Derick Hall said. "He's a true warrior who does everything that Coach G asks him to do, and he handles adversity very well. He's playing through injury right now, but we're happy that he's a part of Auburn.
"He's going to understand his journey, and he's going to be fine."
Contact David Paschall at email@example.com or 423-757-6524.