By Alex Norman
Tennessee’s football program is a historical powerhouse. Six national championships. Thirteen SEC titles. One of the 15 winningest programs in the history of the sport.
But these days the Vols bear little resemblance to those glorious past.
The latest blow for Tennessee fans was a 34-3 loss at Florida. It’s the 14th time in 15 meetings with the Gators that ended with a UT defeat. The Vols quarterbacks couldn’t connect with open receivers. UT’s defensive backs let Gators receivers run free. Tennessee’s defensive linemen gave UF quarterback Kyle Trask all day to throw. Tennessee had four turnovers and the same number of personal foul penalties.
And while Florida is ranked in the top ten, I honestly don’t think they are a very good football team (but we will find out more about them when they play Auburn and LSU in the weeks to come). So if the Vols are outclassed to this extent against the Gators, what on earth is going to happen when Tennessee plays national championship contenders Georgia and Alabama?
When Phillip Fulmer rode back to campus on his white horse to save Tennessee following Schiano Sunday in late 2017, he was tasked with fixing Tennessee football. Yes there were many other things to worry about in that athletics director role, but football drives the engine in that department. He knows it. You know it. The non-revenue sport coaches at Tennessee making six figures know it. Everyone on that campus knows it.
And so far, it looks like Fulmer made a poor choice in Jeremy Pruitt.
That’s not saying he can’t turn things around. If they can beat Mississippi State on October 12th, The Vols have a chance to change the direction of the season, gain some momentum and maybe… just maybe finish 6-6. But at the moment, that looks to be much more than this team can achieve.
During the Butch Jones era, one the biggest knocks on him was his inability to get players to improve. Many players arrived in Knoxville with 4 and 5 star hype, only to be an on-field disappointment. Despite having a coaching staff with big names like offensive coordinator Jim Chaney, wide receivers coach Tee Martin and defensive coordinator Derrick Ansley, you simply aren’t seeing players get better at their craft.
Yes the argument can be made that some of these players were Butch Jones recruits, but that doesn’t mean their trajectory couldn’t be different with better coaches. For all the criticism laid at the feet of the players, the coaching staff should get their share of the blame as well. These guys make a whole lot of cash and the University of Tennessee is not getting their monies worth.
I’m not saying I have the answers. I don’t. A place with the tradition, the facilities, and the fan base like Tennessee should not have this kind of dysfunctional situation. But this is where we are now.
There are conspiracy theories flying around among national media members that Fulmer is going to fire Pruitt and take over the program following the inevitable loss at Alabama in October. Personally, I don’t buy it. Fulmer hasn’t coached a game in 11 years. That part of his life is over. Also, this program needs stability. There have been way too many coaching firings and searches over the past 12 years. That said if the Vols finish say 2-10, Fulmer will have to give serious consideration to firing Pruitt.
Back in 2011 the Vols lost to Kentucky for the first time in 27 years. It was a historic defeat and one that proved Derek Dooley was not going to get it done at Tennessee. Dave Hart was the athletics director back then. He had only been on campus a few months and didn’t want to make that big a decision right away, so he gave Dooley a third year. It was the wrong decision, and it set Tennessee back another year in the rebuild.
Acting swiftly and confidently would have benefited Tennessee eight years ago. It might need to do so later this year.