ATHENS ― Mike Griffith returned last year to cover Tennessee after a four-year hiatus reporting on Michigan State for MLive.com. And he’s had a lot to write about since then, thanks to an endless flow of drama off Rocky Top.
For starters, he gets to write about Butch Jones. Well, I’m not 100 percent sure if it’s “gets to” or “has to,” but suffice it to say he has found himself covering some interesting stories and citing a lot of curious slogans and strange motivational devices.
But whatever the news happens to be, Griffith is well qualified to report and write about it. Now in his second year the Tennessee beat writer for SEC Country, he’s in his 22nd season of covering the SEC, and most of that has been on the Big Orange.
You probably should know Griffith sent me some queries on Georgia, too. But you’ll have to click on his site to see my answers. In the meantime, these are the five questions I sent his way in advance of Georgia’s game at Tennessee on Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS):
1. OK, what’s the deal with Butch Jones? Is he flaking out? Does he really believe that “fake news” is being reported? Do you know the real story on Shy Tuttle? And is Jones really on the hotseat? OK, I guess that was actually four questions. …
Griffith: More SEC coaches are on the so-called “hot seat” than not these days in the sense of the modern-day definition, and Jones would be included. Tennessee fans have had back-to-back top 25 seasons for the first time in nine years, but that’s not enough. The Vols seek a championship, and it has become clear that this season will be as much of a transition as most expected when Tennessee was picked to finish third in the SEC’s Eastern Division with a 7.5-win over-under win total, according to Las Vegas. It has been almost 19 years since the Vols won the SEC championship, and while Jones is only in his fifth year at the helm, he has assumed a lot of the negative equity which proceeded him.
There has been “fake news” in the sense that some national media members (CBSsports.com) report the possibility of his firing after the Georgia game even though the athletic director has issued only statements of support. There’s a fine line between guesswork and reporting, though that line seems to get more blurred with each Internet click. There have been rumors of a practice fight between safety Nigel Warrior and defensive tackle Shy Tuttle, but Jones said Tuttle’s undisclosed injury was the result of falling on a helmet.
2. What was the takeaway from the Florida game and the way it ended with a Hail Mary? Did last year’s Georgia game come up?
Griffith: Tennessee made enough mistakes to lose two games to Florida at The Swamp, missing 3 field goals, throwing 3 interceptions (including a pick-6), and failing to score points on two trips inside the Gators’ 20-yard line. Still, the Volunteers rallied from 10 points down on two occasions and tied the game with a 27-yard field goal with 50 seconds left.
There was some reference to Georgia, but it was a different situation in that the game was headed to overtime had Florida not scored, and the Gators didn’t throw a true “Hail Mary” in the sense of the word. Florida’s play was drawn up — according to QB Feleipe Franks — to gain about 30 yards and put the Gators in field goal range. Tennessee defended the original play, but Franks scrambled from pressure and Tyrie Cleveland altered his route and went deep. The pair connected for a 63-yard touchdown on the broken play.
3. What’s going on with the Tennessee defense this season? What’s their strengths and weaknesses?
Griffith: Tennessee struggled mightily against Georgia Tech’s option throughout most of the 42-41 double-overtime win against the Yellow Jackets before coming up with the key stop from the 3-yard line when Paul Johnson elected to try the 2-point conversion. Georgia Tech rushed the ball on 86 of its 96 plays to the tune of 535 yards, somewhat skewing the Vols’ defensive statistics. Tennessee’s defense has played well since that game, even though all three of the Vols starting linebackers are sidelined by injuries.
Tennessee also has lost starting senior safety Todd Kelly Jr. to a knee injury. Kelly Jr. had 10 tackles in the Vols’ win over Georgia last season. The secondary is experienced and would be considered a strength, while the second-team linebacker corps is the most questionable of the defensive position groups.
4. What’s the skinny on the quarterback competition?
Butch Jones has made it clear junior Quinten Dormady remains in control of the quarterback duties and will be making his fifth start ahead of redshirt Jarrett Guarantano. Dormady has shown the most poise and ability to manage the offense, while Guarantano is the more athletic of the two, but also quite raw. Jones might use Guarantano to spark the offense, or the Vols might ultimately build a package for him.
5. As you know, Tennessee has made a specialty of gigging Georgia in years like this? Do you believe Tennessee can pull off an upset Saturday? If so, how?
I don’t believe Tennessee has the players to upset Georgia. The Vols are missing seven starters, including dynamic kick return man Evan Berry. Among those starters out are dynamic receiver Jauan Jennings — he of the Hail Mary catch that defeated Georgia last season. The Vols are in the midst of a transition season with new quarterbacks, new receivers and new running backs. Of the 357 yards Tennessee gained on Georgia last season, only 41 were accounted for by players that are still with the team.
I’m predicting a Georgia win because Josh Dobbs was the main reason Tennessee won the past two games, and he’s gone. Also, the Bulldogs have a complete team in terms of the offense, defense and special teams. Coach Kirby Smart was dealt a very strong hand from former coach Mark Richt, and after inexplicable losses to Tennessee and Georgia Tech last season, it appears the Bulldogs are primed for a trip to the SEC Championship Game. My thought is Georgia should win by three touchdowns and no less than two touchdowns based on the struggles I’ve seen from Tennessee and the talent the Bulldogs have shown.