1. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but …

Let’s take a stroll to the intersection of opportunity and stupidity.

There on the corner stands the Tennessee program, staring in each direction of a crossroads moment and patiently performing due diligence.

At least that’s what this once-proud program, circling the drain of college football for nearly 15 years, wants you to believe. Here’s what they’re really doing:

Finding a way to fire coach Jeremy Pruitt and save $13 million.

Finding a way to stick their collective finger – again — into the dike.

But dikes don’t leak, everyone. They weaken over time, and fractures and fissures form and before you know it, entire sections are washed away.

This is Tennessee football.

“I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a place, from those running the show to those trying to win games, so dysfunctional,” one former Vols assistant told me.

This latest failure is the byproduct of a previous failure, and if that sounds familiar, it should. Because that’s how they’ve rolled at Tennessee since Lane Kiffin sucked the soul from the program in 2009, when he left for USC after one season.

What followed was an avalanche of panic moves, bad decisions and bad coaching, getting bullied by their own fan base, and finally, millions in wasted money to pay coaches to not coach. Which leads us to this very moment, where the Tennessee administration is trying to fix another bad decision – this time without paying walkaway money.

The university’s NCAA compliance department is investigating recruiting improprieties on Pruitt’s watch. A piece of the investigation involves the recruitment of 5-star offensive lineman Amarius Mims, who signed with Georgia last month.

One source close to the situation told me that based on early investigation – which revolves around assistant coach Brian Niedermeyer’s recruitment of Mims — the university told the football staff to pull tailback Eric Gray and quarterback Brian Maurer from the season final against Texas A&M.

Here is where we reach critical mass, where if Tennessee is prudent in its investigation, it can rip off the Band-Aid and wipe the slate clean for the first time in decades.

If the university fires Pruitt and his staff without cause, it would owe nearly $17 million to pay off contracts. If it fires Pruitt for cause, $13 million of that buyout money (Pruitt and Niedermeyer’s contract) goes away.

Pruitt’s contract specifically states he can be fired for cause if his conduct leads to Level I or II NCAA violations, or if someone who reports to Pruitt (see: Niedermeyer) engages in conduct that brings a Level I or II violation and Pruitt was negligent in his oversight of that person.

Hence, the offseason of due diligence.

If Pruitt had Tennessee in the SEC Championship Game last month or competing at a high level in the conference, this investigation would be a blip on the radar. The university would self-report a violation, the NCAA would come back with a slap on the wrist and the entire episode would be publicly washed away with the “everyone cheats” narrative.

Sort of like what happened with Jimbo Fisher at Texas A&M and Dan Mullen at Florida – and what may or may not happen at Georgia (more on that later). Both Fisher and Mullen knowingly had impermissible contact with a recruit, and both were cited for failure to monitor their staffs.

Both received show-cause orders (the most damaging penalty for a coach), and each university received one year of probation. The penalties were nearly identical and were Level I and II violations.

See where this is headed?

But because Pruitt is 16-19 in 3 seasons at Tennessee, because the Vols were 3-7 this season and Pruitt is 0-9 vs. rivals Alabama, Florida and Georgia, he won’t get the Fisher/Mullen treatment.

He gets his university standing at the intersection of opportunity and stupidity, and painstakingly pouring over every detail of potential NCAA violations so it can find a way to fire him and get out from under a huge buyout and avoid yet another stupid football decision.

The opportunity is there for the university to right all the wrongs from the last 4 disastrous coaching hires and walk away a bit bloodied by the NCAA – but no worse for years of wear and tear.

2. Avoiding another disaster

Tennessee was headed down the road to another bad decision less than a month ago before someone in the university saw a way out of the current bad decision.

That someone was not athletic director Phil Fulmer, architect of the current bad decision (the hiring of Pruitt). The day after Tennessee’s 34-13 loss to Texas A&M, after the 7th loss in 8 games and after Tennessee finished the season averaging less than 20 points per game, the Vols were invited to the Liberty Bowl because everyone in this COVID season was bowl eligible.

When the university announced the bowl invite, Fulmer said, “It’s a tremendous development opportunity for our team, and should serve as a primer to spring practice for Coach Pruitt and our returners.”

The intimation was Pruitt isn’t going anywhere. That is, until the university dug deeper into possible NCAA violations and realized it was their golden ticket.

Not only does it get Tennessee from under a bad contract – Fulmer gave Pruitt an extension and raise after the 2019 season – it allows the Vols to find an experienced coach to run a mega program. Instead of settling for the career assistant coach who said yes – and paying him $4 million a year to learn on the job.

Why did Fulmer make that statement after the Texas A&M game? He likely believes in Pruitt (or the idea that coaches need time), and maybe because the hire of Pruitt is directly tied to him.

Firing a football coach after 3 years – Fulmer’s first hire as AD, after the controversial way he worked behind the scenes to obtain the job (see: alleged coup) – looks poorly on him.

The last thing he needs during the investigation is the university conflating him and Pruitt, and making a decision that affects both men.

As difficult as it was to fire Fulmer, the beloved coach, firing Fulmer, the athletic director, wouldn’t be nearly as heavy a lift.

3. Finding a way out, The Epilogue

The NCAA investigation is merely the tool to get a difficult decision hammered out.

The real problem for Pruitt is his performance vs. other SEC coaches.

Like Pruitt, Mullen and Fisher have been at their respective programs for 3 years — but have made drastic inroads. Top 10 ranking and multiple New Year’s 6 bowls.

Ed Orgeron won a national title in his third year as head coach at LSU.

Kiffin found his way back to the SEC, and in his first season at Ole Miss, won 5 games and beat No.11-ranked Indiana in a bowl game.

Pruitt’s highwater mark: He has won 2 in a row over Vanderbilt – which, in the grand scheme of what has happened to the program since Fulmer was fired in 2008, isn’t such a bad thing.

So where does Tennessee go if Pruitt is fired? The options will be limited, despite the fact that it’s one of the seven best jobs in the best conference in college football. This is what happens when your program is seen throughout the coaching fraternity as Team Turmoil.

Forget about Iowa State’s Matt Campbell or Cincinnati’s Luke Fickel. They’re not diving into this mess; they’re waiting for better college football jobs or in Campbell’s case, NFL jobs.

Tom Allen isn’t leaving Indiana for Tennessee, and the Vols aren’t coming up with $25 million to pay his buyout, anyway.

More than likely, any potential search revolves around a handful of candidates.

— Huge Freeze, Liberty: An easy hire. Freeze once called Tennessee his dream job. But hiring Freeze would obviously be bad optics. Ole Miss was placed on probation because of Freeze and his staff the last time he was in the league. Can you really fire one coach for NCAA problems, and hire another with the same on his resume?

— Tom Herman, former Texas coach: Four years ago, Herman was the hottest coaching prospect. Now he has the Texas funk attached to him.

— Dave Doeren, NC State; Mike Gundy, Oklahoma State; Jeff Brohm, Purdue: All three were candidates the last time, all three said no. All three are currently in much different situations and might be available.

— Billy Napier, Louisiana: A former assistant for Dabo Swinney and Nick Saban, he’ll one day make some athletic director look very smart.

4. The investigation tentacles

While Tennessee is deep into an NCAA investigation, national radio host Dan Patrick said last week that a source told him Georgia “could be next.”

Georgia officials told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “While we do not comment on alleged NCAA investigations at other institutions, we have no information to suggest there is any validity to the reports relating to our football program.”

Translation: We haven’t heard anything.

The difference between what Tennessee is dealing with, and what Georgia could be (if anything comes of Patrick’s “source”), is Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart has capital equity from the program’s performance on the field.

In other words, should a similar situation arise, Smart’s on-field performance will outweigh any NCAA misstep off it (like Mullen and Fisher).

5. The Weekly Five

Five best individual matchups if the 2021 CFP National Championship Game:

  • 1. Ohio State CB Shaun Wade vs. Alabama WR DeVonta Smith.
  • 2. Alabama C Chris Owens vs. Ohio State NT Tommy Togiai.
  • 3. Ohio State MLB Pete Werner vs. Alabama TB Najee Harris.
  • 4. Alabama DE Christian Barmore vs. Ohio State OT Thayer Munford.
  • 5. Alabama MLB Dylan Moses vs. Ohio State TB Trey Sermon.

6. Your tape is your résumé

An NFL scout breaks down a draft-eligible SEC player. This week: Missouri LB Nick Bolton.

“He’s not the biggest guy, but he shows everything you need from a guy in the middle. He’s a terrific athlete, and a guy that when you turn on the tape, his instincts and football IQ just jump out at you. He knows the position and knows how to leverage himself. Teams are all over the board on him. I’ve seen him as high as the No. 1 linebacker in the draft and a first-round pick, to a late second round. You’re going to get a guy that knows the game and that will be an unbelievable asset to a locker room. He will blow away teams when he interviews. If you’re tied to the idea of 6-4, 240-pound middle linebackers (as some in this league are), he’s not your guy. But he’ll be a very productive player in this league. Reminds me a lot of Jon Bostic.”

7. Powered Up

This week’s Power Poll: ranking the coaches.

1. Nick Saban, Alabama: If the Tide beat Ohio State on Monday night, Saban will have won 6 national titles in 14 seasons at Alabama and a record 7 overall.

2. Jimbo Fisher, Texas A&M: Fisher took a huge jump this season by finally reaching expectations at Texas A&M. Next up: following up in 2021 with a completely renovated offense.

3. Ed Orgeron, LSU: Followed a national championship season by struggling in the first half of 2020, before saving the second half of the season.

4. Kirby Smart, Georgia: His (mis)management of the quarterback position has been stunning. The only thing that has kept Georgia from winning a national title — and Smart from a permanent spot at No. 2 on this list.

5. Dan Mullen, Florida: A season of hope ended with a dud – and NCAA violations. Mullen’s behavior during the season was bizarre and at times reckless, and the university isn’t thrilled.

6. Lane Kiffin, Ole Miss: Who would’ve guessed Kiffin was the quiet one of the 14 coaches? A helluva (non-controversial) first year for the coach who is beginning to find it.

7. Mark Stoops, Kentucky: Annually does more with less. I have no idea how Stoops won 12 games the last 2 seasons with a wide receiver playing quarterback in 2019, and with zero consistency at the position in 2020.

8. Mike Leach, Mississippi State: Things got worse from the highpoint of the season in the opener, but Leach says freshman QB Will Rogers is better at this point in his career than any in a long line of quarterbacks he has coached.

9. Eliah Drinkwitz, Missouri: If you were wondering how Drinkwitz went from offensive coordinator at App State to head coach, to head coach in the SEC in a span of 11 months, check out Year 1 with Mizzou.

10. Sam Pittman, Arkansas: With a little luck and couple of breaks (3 losses by a total of 7 points), Arkansas could’ve won 6 games. A huge jump from where the program was.

11. Bryan Harsin, Auburn: They tried to hire many others, and wound up with a terrific replacement for Gus Malzhan. Harsin already is surrounding himself with assistants with SEC experience: Mike Bobo and Derek Mason.

12. Shane Beamer, South Carolina: He has proven he can recruit, and he has the bloodlines. But if he can’t consistently win, he’ll be tossed on the pile of all the others who couldn’t.

13. Clark Lea, Vanderbilt: An elite defensive mind and an alum who comes into a very difficult situation with eyes wide open. If the Vandy administration can help (see: facilities, assistant coach salary pool, recruiting budget), Lea can make it work.

14. Jeremy Pruitt, Tennessee: Every coach since Fulmer had their implosion moment. Pruitt’s: firing D-line coach Jimmy Brumbaugh in the middle of a Week 4 loss to Kentucky – then bragged that he would coach the D-line the remainder of the season. Little surprise, it didn’t work out.

8. Ask and you shall receive

Matt: Is there any chance Mac Jones returns for the 2021 season?

Silvia Swanson
Montgomery, Ala.

Silvia: Scouts I’ve talked to are mixed on Jones, who is one big game against Ohio State from having the best single season in the history of Alabama quarterbacks. I’ve been a huge proponent of Jones all season and voted him first on my Heisman Trophy ballot.

What he accomplished this season was way undervalued and hidden behind the ridiculous notion that “anyone” could make those perfect throws on time and with anticipation to Alabama’s talented receiving corps.

That, of course, is lunacy.

My guess is Jones will get a grade of middle to late first-round grade from the NFL advisory board, and will apply for the draft. If he received that grade, he’d have to leave – unless he enjoys the college experience and wants to become an Alabama legend.

If he leaves, Alabama is in good hands with uber-talented freshman Bryce Young and whoever Saban hires as his offensive coordinator.

9. Numbers: 64

Want to see a quick glance at Florida’s offense in 2021 with Emory Jones and/or Anthony Richardson as the starting quarterback? In his last season at Mississippi State in 2017, Mullen ran the ball 64% of the time (634 rush, 353 pass). QB Nick Fitzgerald had 286 passes and 162 rushes.

This season at Florida, behind record-setting QB Kyle Trask, the Gators threw the ball 56 percent of the time (473 pass, 367 rush). If those numbers from 2017 hold for the 2021 Gators, that’s a 20 percent increase in the run game.

10. Quote to note

Alabama coach Nick Saban: “We told our players the team that shows the maturity to be able to handle disruptions is going to have the best chance to be successful in the end, and consistency in performance is always a key to success. That perseverance has shown up in the way we’ve been able to play with consistency.”