By Mark Nagi
It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
This is year three of the Jeremy Pruitt era, and while teams like Texas A&M have been able to secure at least one “marquee” win (over Florida a few weeks ago), Tennessee still finds itself struggling mightily against the best teams in the conference.
Following their 48-17 loss to Alabama on October 24, Pruitt tried to reassure Vols fans that things are not as bleak as they seem. “I can assure you that the gap is closing,” said Pruitt. “It might not show on the scoreboard today, but the gap is closing. I can assure you that. That’s one thing that is frustrating to me and it is frustrating to our players. There are times that we have done some really good things as a team, whether it is the offense playing really well or the defense playing really well or special teams. We’ve not put any of that together and that’s what elite teams in our conference do.”
It isn’t just Alabama.
The Vols’ three biggest rivals are Alabama, Georgia and Florida. The Vols have played Alabama and Georgia three times under Pruitt and twice faced Florida, and none of those games have been close.
“To be honest, they have been better than us,” said Pruitt. “Plain and simple. If we were better than them and lost the games, I would say that. They have been better than us. We’ve played with them in spurts, but from an execution, finishing standpoint we have not been able to sustain and do that. When I look at our team, I really like our makeup, got a lot of young guys that have the chance to be really good for us and as they grow and develop, we’ll continue to close that gap.”
If you are getting Butch Jones flashbacks, you aren’t alone.
If you are getting Derek Dooley flashbacks, you aren’t alone.
Tennessee fans have been down this road before so often over the past 13 seasons that it’s difficult to keep track of all the times hopes were dashed.
Before we go any further, let’s just get it out there that even if Tennessee limps to a 3-7 finish (yes, I’m giving them the Vandy win no matter what), Pruitt isn’t going anywhere.
Firing a coach… and in turn his staff, and paying over ten million in buyout dollars… during a pandemic? Nah, not even Tennessee, a University that hands out buyout cash like it is from a big bag of Smarties at Halloween, is going to do that this year.
Plus, Pruitt’s boss is athletics director Phillip Fulmer, who is going to give Pruitt every chance to make it work. Fulmer to this day feels that he was not rightfully dismissed in 2008, only a year after winning the SEC East. He’s not booting Pruitt this year.
Pruitt has the misfortune of being the Vols coach at a time when those big three rivals we talked about are rolling. Overall, the conference remains the most difficult in the nation. It’s really tough to climb the ladder in the SEC, and Pruitt, a first-time head coach, is learning that the hard way.
Entering Saturday’s game at Arkansas, the Vols are 15-15 under Pruitt’s watch. In that time, they have yet to beat a top ten opponent, nor stay within a couple of touchdowns of those teams. This is not progress.
The biggest issue is obviously at quarterback. The Vols have not developed one under Pruitt. They can develop talent at every position it seems but that signal caller.
If Jarrett Guarantano truly is the Vols best option at quarterback, that is an indictment of Pruitt, offensive coordinator Jim Chaney, and quarterbacks coach Chris Weinke. It is simply unacceptable when you consider the millions of dollars those three guys are bringing in.
The second half of this football season is likely going to bring with it more anguish for Vols fans.
Something has to change.