By Mark Nagi
During this break in the action, we sometimes have a hard time thinking about the return of sports. It almost hurts to hope. But we have faith this is just a temporary hiccup. With that in mind, let’s talk football.
The Tennessee Volunteers aren’t at the elite level in the SEC. That platform can only support so much weight, and right now Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Georgia and LSU are up there, waving to their adoring fans from above. But in 2019, the Vols showed signs that they are a few steps closer to joining them.
Look at what happened in the Gator Bowl. The Vols struggled to score in the red zone. They turned the football over multiple times. They were flagged for costly penalties. They trailed Indiana by 13 points with under five minutes remaining. And yet they found a way to win.
That brought back memories of the good times. Back when Phillip Fulmer was Tennessee’s head coach (1992-2008), there was often criticism about the conservative nature of the Vols play-calling, both on offense and on defense. But those teams also knew how to close out games and overcome adversity on days in which they didn’t play their best football.
There’s something to be said for a group that is mentally tough. The Derek Dooley (2010-2012) and Butch Jones (2013-2017) teams were not mentally tough. During crunch time, those teams didn’t play to win. They played not to lose. In particular, Jones’s 2015 and 2016 teams had more than enough talent to win the SEC East in each season, but never won the division. Rarely under Dooley or Jones did the Vols get the big stop, pick up the game clinching first down, make the key kick or come up with the correct play call.
During the second half of the 2019 season, Tennessee showed their fans that they would not shy away from such stressful situations. Against Kentucky, the Vols’ defense stood tall, stopping Kentucky inside the two yard line in the final two minutes. Then the offense was able to move the chains to seal the deal. Against Missouri, when the Vols needed to get a couple of first downs late in the game, they did so. Those were games they could have easily lost, but they didn’t play or coach scared.
In the first two years of the Derek Dooley era, Tennessee went 11-14 with a bowl game loss. In the first two years of the Butch Jones era, the Vols were 12-13 with a bowl game victory. In the first two years of the Jeremy Pruitt era, UT had a 13-12 record, with a bowl game victory.
From a purely numbers point of view, you can see the marginal improvement. When watching the way the Pruitt teams play, the eye test has to give Vols fans even more reason to feel good about the direction of the program, especially after the 1-4 start to the 2019 season.
The Vols closed with six consecutive wins. They dominated November, as Fulmer almost always did.
“We owned who we were and worked hard to improve,” Pruitt told reporters after the Gator Bowl. “I think that says a whole lot about our assistant coaches, everybody associated in our program, and the players on our team. You know, no quitters on that team.”
The next step that the Vols need to take will be to put those quality performances together against the elite teams on their schedule. The wins over nationally-ranked Auburn and Kentucky in 2018 were not matched with positive efforts against other SEC foes. And as encouraging as the season-ending six game winning streak was last year, none of those victories came against top conference opponents. In fact, in Tennessee’s six combined games against Alabama, Florida and Georgia under Pruitt, they’ve been outscored 255-83. Only the Bama game this season was competitive into the fourth quarter.
The 2019 season was successful for Tennessee football, but they have more work to do. Will the Vols figure out a way to hang with the best in the conference in 2020?
We’ll find out (hopefully) in about five months.
Mark Nagi is the author of “Decade of Dysfunction,” which takes an up close look at Tennessee’s crazy coaching search of 2017. The book is available on Amazon.