KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee got some desperately needed momentum just in time for the start of Southeastern Conference competition.
Jarrett Guarantano threw three first-half touchdown passes and Tennessee rolled to a 45-0 blowout of Football Championship Subdivision program Chattanooga on Saturday as the Volunteers began digging their way out of their slowest start in over three decades.
Tennessee (1-2) is trying to bounce back from its first 0-2 start since 1988, when the Vols dropped their first six games before finishing 5-6.
"The one thing that you never want to get is where (losing) doesn't bother you," Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt said. "It bothers me. I can't sleep at night. I probably make everybody in our building miserable because of it. I know I do at home. We've got to get our players to where that's the way they are, and we've got a lot of them in our program that are that way."
Tennessee took out its frustrations on Chattanooga (1-2) before beginning a grueling monthlong stretch.
In its next four games, Tennessee visits No. 9 Florida, hosts No. 3 Georgia and Mississippi State and visits No. 2 Alabama.
"It felt good being able to build our confidence going into our SEC games and being able to know that we can execute," Tennessee linebacker Henry To'o To'o said.
Chattanooga coach Rusty Wright spent the last two seasons working as an assistant at Georgia State, which stunned Tennessee 38-30 as a 26-point underdog two weeks ago. But Wright's current team couldn't come close to producing a similar shcker.
Tennessee instead forced five turnovers and took the suspense out of this one early. The Vols capitalized on Chattanooga's mistakes to grab a 21-0 lead in the game's first 6 ½ minutes.
"They got the momentum first -- and we never really got it back," said Chattanooga running back Elijah Ibitokun-Hanks, who rushed for 85 yards on 15 carries.
Tennessee's Ty Chandler returned the opening kickoff 58 yards to set up his own 13-yard touchdown run around left end. After Chattanooga went three-and-out on its first series, Tyler Byrd blocked a punt and Brandon Johnson picked up the loose ball and ran 24 yards into the end zone.
Chattanooga's next series ended when Nigel Warrior picked off a Nick Tiano pass and delivered a 22-yard interception return before going out of bounds at the Mocs' 16-yard line. The turnover set up Guarantano's 12-yard touchdown pass to Jauan Jennings,
Guarantano also threw touchdown passes of 39 yards to Marquez Callaway and 28 yards to Cedric Tillman in the second quarter as Tennessee built a 38-0 halftime lead. Guarantano went 7 of 8 for 142 yards before sitting out the second half.
Guarantano said his confidence never wavered during this season's tough start because "I wasn't raised that way" but acknowledged that these last couple of weeks had been difficult for him.
"There were definitely some trying times and tough times, but I learned more about myself in these past two weeks and these trying times than I ever have," Guarantano said. "I don't think I ever really went through something like that, and I'm happy to get over the hump and am starting to feel like myself again."
Guarantano's three touchdown passes set a new career single-game high for the junior, who was making his 21st start. Jeremy Banks sparked Tennessee's defense by recording two interceptions.
Chattanooga: The Mocs made far too many mistakes to have a chance of competing with a Southeastern Conference team. Tiano and Drayton Arnold each threw two interceptions. Punter Colin Brewer also mishandled a snap early in the third quarter to set up another Tennessee touchdown. An offensive pass interference penalty wiped out Chattanooga's only touchdown.
Tennessee: It's tough to tell whether the lopsided result really indicates Tennessee has improved after its 0-2 start because Chattanooga was such an overmatched opponent. But the Vols' ability to force turnovers was encouraging. Tennessee had produced just 16 takeaways in the first 14 games of Pruitt's coaching tenure.
Tennessee's Darnell Wright and K'Rojhn Calbert made their first career starts on the offensive line, with Wright at right guard and Calbert at right tackle. Freshman Wanya Morris got the start at left tackle in place of the injured Jahmir Johnson.
Linebacker Daniel Bituli, the Vols' leading tackler in 2017 and 2018, made his 2019 debut after recovering from an offseason knee procedure. Cornerback Kenneth George Jr. made his first career start.
Members of Tennessee's Pride of the Southland marching band briefly wore a T-shirt that the university designed this week to honor a young Vols fan who was teased at his school.
The fourth-grader's story went viral after his teacher posted on Facebook that the student's peers mocked a T-shirt he designed for his school's "college colors" day.
After the post gained attention, Tennessee's VolShop website created its own shirt featuring the boy's design. School officials say over 50,000 shirts have been presold. Proceeds benefit STOMP Out Bullying.
Tennessee has offered him a four-year scholarship starting in the fall of 2028, assuming he chooses Tennessee and meets admission requirements.
Chattanooga hosts James Madison on Saturday.
Tennessee visits No. 9 Florida on Saturday.
More AP college football: https://apnews.com/Collegefootball and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25
Follow Steve Megargee at https://twitter.com/stevemegargee