First and 10: Muschamp and Mason are gone. How much longer can Jeremy Pruitt survive?
1. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but …
This is it for Jeremy Pruitt. This is where we see everything you get for $4 million a year.
This is where the Tennessee administration can clearly navigate the fog of losing and decide, without hesitation, if the program is headed in the right direction with Pruitt as coach.
Bitter rival Florida arrives in Knoxville this weekend, and the bar – and more to the point, the comparison — has been set.
Will Tennessee and Pruitt wilt under the pressure of it all?
“These guys have seen the little things that it takes to be successful,” Pruitt said, “and the little things it takes that maybe keeps us on the short end of the stick.”
There could not be a more fitting analogy.
Pruitt and Florida coach Dan Mullen arrived at their respective jobs at the same time, and both took over proud, floundering programs.
Mullen won for the 28th time this past weekend, setting a school record for most wins to start a career (34 games).
Pruitt’s team avoided losing for a school-record 6th straight time, when COVID positives and tracing within the program postponed a game with winless Vanderbilt.
Success vs. the short end of the stick.
It’s right there in Big Orange reality for all to embrace. Like it or not and fair or not, there’s no denying the comparisons in a brutally cutthroat profession.
Sometimes you reach them, sometimes they engulf you.
Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher faced a similar scenario in October, and the result changed the course of the season – and his coaching tenure in College Station.
Like Pruitt, Fisher was hired by the Aggies 3 years ago and had been compared to Mullen’s fast start at Florida. A last-second, game-winning field goal gave Texas A&M more than just an important victory over the Gators after a humiliating loss to Alabama, more than a signature win for Fisher.
It gave the Aggies’ administration reason to believe their $75 million investment in Fisher would eventually pay off.
The obvious question: What has Pruitt accomplished to give the Tennessee administration reason to believe things will get better?
“I hate to say this because I really like both men,” an SEC coach told me last week. “But (Pruitt) reminds me a lot of Will (Muschamp). Two really good Xs and Os coaches, two men who really want what’s best for players on and off the field. But two coaches who, for whatever reason, haven’t made it work.
“How many of us do make it work? At the end of the day, we’re all hired to be fired in this conference.”
The only variable is when.
How many beatdowns at the hands of rivals Alabama, Florida and Georgia have to happen to Pruitt and Tennessee before change is forced on a program that hasn’t been relevant at the national level – much less, the SEC – in nearly two decades?
Tennessee has lost 14 straight to Alabama, 14 of 15 to Florida and 9 of 11 to Georgia. Under Pruitt, the Vols are 0-8 vs. their rivals, and those 8 losses have been as unsightly as unforgiveable.
— To Alabama by 31, 22 and 37 points.
— To Georgia by 23, 29 and 27 points.
— To Florida by 26 and 31 points.
That’s 8 losses to your biggest rivals – the very teams you’re chasing and the teams keeping you in the second tier of the SEC – by an average of 28.3 points per game.
Still think this weekend’s game against Florida isn’t critical?
Pruitt can talk about getting better, about how this team extended last year’s Fool’s Gold 6-game winning streak to 8 before it unraveled, in part, because of 6 months of uncertainty with all things COVID (the same thing, you know, everyone else has dealt with).
He’ll point to the 6-game winning streak last year as what could be, despite the undeniable facts of what is.
In that 6-game streak, the Vols beat:
- South Carolina (finished 4-8, fired coach midway through 2020 season).
- Group of 5 UAB
- Kentucky (playing a WR at QB)
- Missouri (fired its coach 2 weeks later)
- Vanderbilt (3-9 in 2020; fired its coach Sunday after 0-7 start)
- Indiana (Hoosiers missed game-winning field goal).
The Vols then began this season with a 4-point win over South Carolina (see: fired coach) and a 23-point win over Missouri in its 2nd game with new coach Eliah Drinkwitz.
That’s the foundation of Pruitt’s case to continue as the coach at Tennessee. Still think this Florida game isn’t critical?
Beat Florida, and there’s no chance the Tennessee administration fires a coach who beats a hated rival in front of delirious home fans.
Lose badly (and what from this defense gives any indication it can stop the Gators’ offense?), and you’ve tied the longest losing streak in school history – with a game against top 5 Texas A&M up next and one against winless Vanderbilt (which has won 3 of the last 4 games between the teams but will be with an interim coach) to finish the season.
The Vols could lose to Florida, then come back a week later and beat Texas A&M – and that, too, could save Pruitt’s job. But the more you dig deeper into what Pruitt has (or hasn’t) accomplished, the more it’s clear there are significant problems — and more on the horizon.
The best predictor of the future is the past, and we’ve seen what has happened with this team when it faces adversity.
The 5 straight losses by double digits, a new school record of futility.
The firing of defensive line coach Jimmy Brumbaugh in the middle of the 2nd game of the season, after which, Pruitt declared, “I’ll coach the defensive line” – and the unit still isn’t any better than it was with Brumbaugh.
The insistence of playing quarterback Jarrett Guarantano despite his consistently poor performances (more on that later).
It makes you long for the days of “Champions of Life” and the “Turnover Trashcan” with former coach Butch Jones. The Tennessee administration will finish paying Jones to not coach in February.
They might replace one paid non-coach with another unless the Vols can beat Florida.
2. The QB quandary
Guarantano is everything you want from any player on your team, and specifically your quarterback.
First to show up, last to leave. Great leader. Locker room loves and respects him and wants to win with him.
Graduated early. A tough player who won’t be intimidated, and a big, athletic specimen with all the physical tools.
The Tennessee staff has had him for 3 seasons, and all they have to show for it is a win at Auburn in 2018 and the Indiana win – and a bunch of games they could’ve won with anyone at quarterback.
He has gotten progressively less efficient with each season, and then this fall, got reckless with 3 pick-6s and a fumble returned for another defensive touchdown.
In this age of offense-fueled football, there is no more important position to figure out than quarterback. And Pruitt and his staff have failed miserably.
The argument that Guarantano isn’t Pruitt’s recruit is laughable. If Pruitt didn’t think he could win with Guarantano, he’d have moved on long ago.
He’d have recruited over him. He’d have developed others. He’d have put his program in the best position possible by playing the best available option.
And that’s the rub. Whether or not Guarantano is the answer, Pruitt and his staff have failed to recruit and develop anyone who could push him.
They tried with then-freshman Brian Maurer last year, and it didn’t take. And still haven’t tried this fall with freshman Harrison Bailey (that may change against Florida).
That, everyone, is coaching and developing. That’s the difference between avoiding a pink slip (Pruitt) and clinching a spot in the SEC Championship Game with a win this weekend (Mullen).
Kyle Trask wasn’t Mullen’s “recruit” – nor was Feleipe Franks. Mullen won 10 games with each quarterback, and Trask this season is a Heisman Trophy favorite.
With 3 games to play in Guarantano’s redshirt senior season – when he should be the most prepared and most dangerous at any point in his career – he has 6 TDs and 4 INTs and a handful of backbreaking plays that have cost the Vols a chance to win over the last 5 games.
Either Guarantano is far and away the best option at the position, or Pruitt has missed badly with the idea that Bailey isn’t ready to play. But don’t blame Guarantano for regressing, or Mauer for not developing or Bailey for not being ready to play.
Blame the Tennessee coaching staff. They’ve had 3 years to fix the position – and haven’t.
3. The fall guy
If you don’t think part of the blame for the state of the Tennessee program lies with AD/kingmaker Phil Fulmer, you’re living in a checkerboard dreamworld.
It’s easy to point at Pruitt and proclaim he’s overmatched. But he was Fulmer’s handpicked replacement for Jones – after Fulmer’s successful coup of the athletic department that got John Currie fired as AD and Fulmer hired.
So if the Vols lose to Florida and Texas A&M to finish the season, and you’re going to fire Pruitt because of the direction of the program, why not point your disgust at the guy (Fulmer) who essentially gave a teenager the keys to a Ferrari and said don’t wreck it.
And gave him $4 million a year to do it – then added on another 2 years of joyriding to the original contract, forcing the university to pay $12.6 million if it chooses to buy him out after this season.
Fulmer ran a successful coup that led him to hire a career assistant coach way over market value. He then double downed with a contract extension because of that masterful aforementioned 6-game winning streak, before the teenager ran the Ferrari off the road and into a ditch.
Still think this weekend’s Florida game isn’t critical?
4. Stay or go?
Alabama looked just like Alabama in last weekend’s Iron Bowl, and there’s no greater indicator of how far Steve Sarkisian has come with his career reclamation.
From getting fired at USC in 2015 because of substance abuse problems and the corresponding behavior, to filling in flawlessly for Tide coach Nick Saban (COVID positive) during the Iron Bowl, it has been a long, strange ride for Sarkisian.
He could’ve had the Tide offensive coordinator job after running the offense for the 2016 national championship game (after Saban fired Lane Kiffin before the NC game against Clemson) but chose to leave Alabama for the offensive coordinator job with the Atlanta Falcons. He returned to Tuscaloosa 2 years later, and has been Saban’s OC since 2019.
While Saban hasn’t given any indication of slowing down, Sarkisian has an intriguing choice to make this offseason. He will have an opportunity at another head coaching job (he had one last year, too), but what’s best for his long term?
Would Sarkisian, 46, be better off staying in Tuscaloosa until Saban calls it quits? While there’s no guarantee he’d get the Alabama job, it would be hard to not give him serious consideration – especially if the Tide continue to win SEC and/or national championships – and he keeps developing elite offenses and Heisman Trophy-caliber quarterbacks.
He wouldn’t be the first choice – Dabo Swinney of Clemson and Kirby Smart of Georgia would be – but could eventually be the fallback when Swinney and Smart say no.
5. The Weekly Five
Five picks against the spread.
- Florida (-6.5) at Tennessee
- Texas A&M (+3) at Auburn
- Arkansas (+3) at Missouri
- South Carolina at Kentucky (-12)
- Vanderbilt at Georgia (-33.5)
Last week: 3-1 (1 postponement)
6. Your tape is your résumé
An NFL scout breaks down a draft-eligible SEC player. This week: Alabama CB Patrick Surtain II.
“He’s not a burner, not a guy who can make up with closing speed. If you’re looking for a C.J. Henderson type guy that can run, he’s not it. But he’s everything you want from the position. His football IQ is off the charts. He knows leverage and angles and he’s long and athletic and plays physically every single snap.
“He is a shutdown corner, no doubt in my mind. So much of our game now is 50-50 balls. I haven’t seen a guy who plays the ball in the air better in a long, long time. He finds it, and attacks it.”
7. Powered Up
This week’s Power Poll – and one big thing.
1. Alabama: One of the top 3 coaching jobs this season: Tide OC Steve Sarkisian getting Mac Jones to play at an elite level. Wildly overlooked because Alabama is Alabama.
2. Florida: A dangerous spot for the Gators. Vols will have had 2 weeks to prepare and are desperate. Win, and Gators clinch the East Division.
3. Texas A&M: The Aggies are the first elite team that has come off an extended COVID break and played poorly. Some of that can be attributed to bad weather, but QB Kellen Mond played his worst game of the season.
4. Georgia: The objective vs. Vandy: Get JT Daniels more repetitions and the passing game more comfortable with him as the leader. There’s little doubt UGA building toward 2021 now.
5. Missouri: The focus has been on the Missouri offense and QB Connor Bazelak. The Tigers’ defense, meanwhile, has given up 30 total points in their last 3 victories.
6. Ole Miss: Imagine what the Rebels could be with a modicum of defense. Don’t think there’s another job available that would intrigue Lane Kiffin – yet, anyway. It’s early in the process.
7. Auburn: The regression of QB Bo Nix is real and it hit rock bottom against Alabama. Gus Malzahn will have to address it this offseason – even if it means finding another offensive coordinator and/or quarterbacks coach.
8. LSU: LSU isn’t competitive in the upper half of the SEC because it doesn’t have a quarterback. There’s plenty on both sides of the ball to win 6 or 7 games this season with a quarterback who makes smart throws and protects the ball.
9. Arkansas: Barry Odom returns to CoMo with the knowledge of the Mizzou personnel, and a stingy Arkansas defense. The Hogs still need key plays from QB Feleipe Franks.
10. Kentucky: A brutal season for the Wildcats, who deserved better (see: Auburn, Ole Miss losses). This team is much better than 4 losses in the last 5 games.
11. Tennessee: Vols are averaging 15 ppg. in 5-game losing streak and have converted only 25-of-74 on 3RD downs (33.7%). Opponents, meanwhile are converting 54.1% over that span.
12. Mississippi State: The last 2 weeks with extreme obstacles (30-plus scholarship players unavailable at various times) might be Mike Leach’s best coaching job in his career. Lost to Georgia by 7 on the road, and lost to bitter rival Ole Miss by 7 on the road.
13. South Carolina: The last thing South Carolina needs is Tennessee firing Jeremy Pruitt, leaving another (better) SEC job to compete with. That, or make a move on the coach who works before it happens (see: Hugh Freeze).
14. Vanderbilt; Commodores could do a lot worse than Will Healy as their next head coach. A Tennessee native, he had success at the FCS level (Austin Peay) before doing successful heavy lifting at Charlotte.
8. Ask and you shall receive
Matt: So Vanderbilt just fired another coach. It’s like death, taxes and a new Vanderbilt coach. When does this carousel stop? I love the idea of former NFL coach Jeff Fisher. Still lives here in Nashville, and would bring a more pro-style to the job.
Peter: I couldn’t disagree more. Vandy doesn’t need an NFL retread. Vandy needs to be different – vastly different. If I’m the chancellor of Vanderbilt, I’m making two calls and forcing one of the two to say yes: Army’s Jeff Monken and Navy’s Ken Niumatalolo.
Because of its academic standards, Vandy will never be able to recruit they type of athlete it takes to compete at a high level in the SEC. Stop comparing the program to Stanford and Northwestern; it’s a significantly different playing field. It’s easier to win in those conferences than the SEC.
By hiring one of two men who have consistently proven an ability to win big through difficult obstacles (and with elite academic standards), you’re changing the way you think about football. It’s not about trying to trade blows with the rest of the SEC.
It’s about using the right hammer with all of those nails that never worked before.
9. Numbers: 14.3
Remember the young Alabama defense that gave up 48 points to Ole Miss and had to get a service break to win the game? Well, the Tide has given up 33 points in the last 4 games (8.3 ppg.) and leads the SEC in scoring defense (18.5 ppg.).
Just for funsies, let’s eliminate that Ole Miss game from the season points per game average. The points per game number then falls to 14.3 – which would make Alabama the No. 2 scoring defense among Power 5 teams, and No. 1 among teams playing a consistent schedule (current No. 1 is Wisconsin, with 3 games played). The point of the exercise: The Tide are a different defense from the first month of the season.
10. Quote to note
Florida coach Dan Mullen after the Gators’ uninspiring 24-point win over Kentucky: “I’m a perfectionist. I want to come out and absolutely dominate. They never gain 1 yard from the first play to the last, and we average 15 yards per play every single play we can. But that’s not reality.”