First and 10: Buckle up Tennessee fans. The Vols haven't even reached rock bottom
1. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but …
This unraveling of a program started long before Jeremy Pruitt arrived at Tennessee. It just looks worse now than it ever has.
The big question hanging over this unruly mess: Is rock bottom because of Pruitt, or despite him?
“We’re trying to build a program here,” Pruitt said Saturday night after Tennessee’s embarrassing emasculation at the hands of rival Florida. “It takes guys doing it the right way, and doing it the right way all the time.”
You want to see holy hell on a football field? Check this out:
Tennessee’s first seven possessions against Florida ended thusly: fumble, interception, downs, field goal, safety, fumble and fumble.
Those seven ghastly possessions made an average Florida team look like Danny Wuerffel was still pitching it around (don’t ever mistake Danny Wonderful for Feleipe Franks), and pulled back the curtain on the heavy lifting ahead for Pruitt.
There’s a good chance Tennessee won’t win an SEC game this year, and when it travels to Gainesville to begin league play next season, will have lost 17 consecutive SEC games. If that sounds disconcerting, the sight of it all on Saturday night was much worse.
This is a bad team. The Vols either have guys who can’t play (the entire offensive line), are too young to play (the entire secondary), or won’t play (linebacker Quart’e Sapp).
Look, I don’t care who is telling the truth or who’s lying. But when you’re four games into the season and the one guy (Sapp) who epitomizes everything you want from your program – Pruitt called him an ambassador for the program after the game – is told to go home in the middle of the second half, something is seriously sideways.
That’s not Phil Fulmer’s fault or Lane Kiffin’s fault or Derek Dooley’s fault or Butch Jones’ fault or John Currie’s fault (more on all of that later). That’s directly at the feet of the new coach, the former Alabama assistant who had never been a head coach in college football –- yet was given $4 million a year to see if he could change the fortunes of a once proud program.
If the one guy you absolutely need on your side is walking off the field in the middle of the game, it doesn’t matter whose story you believe. What matters is he’s walking off the field – and the buy-in from every other player just got a little harder.
Pruitt says Sapp was told to go in the game, and said no. That’s why he told him to go home. Sapp took to social media to proclaim that he didn’t refuse to go in, and that there was a “sideline confrontation” in which “the other party involved had to be restrained.”
Problem No. 1: If Sapp got into an altercation with another player, that’s one thing. If he got into an altercation with a coach, that’s season-damaging stuff.
Problem No. 2: We’re four games into Pruitt’s tenure, and he already has one of the most important players – not best, but important – using the loudest bullhorn of all (social media) to expose issues on the team.
If you close your eyes and listen to the madness, you’d swear Butch Jones was still coaching this team.
Tennessee doesn’t have a quarterback who can make plays consistently, and doesn’t have a defense that can get a stop when it needs it. The Vols haven’t scored a first-quarter touchdown all season, and last weekend turned the ball over twice inside their 25, gave up a safety and fumbled a sure touchdown into the end zone for a touchback.
We’re four games into Pruitt’s tenure, and the Vols are undisciplined at best, on the verge of chaos at worst.
After Tennessee began the first half of the Florida game with that freak show of seven possessions, the Vols were down 26-3 and not out of the game. More than 70 players returned from last year’s team that was tied with the Gators 20-20 on the final play of the game.
Two years ago, Tennessee was down 21-3 at halftime in this game, and went on to snap an 11-game losing streak to the Gators. Then came last weekend.
After a first half where everything that could go wrong did, the Vols came out and fumbled the second-half kickoff. A play later, Florida scored and led 33-3.
If a coach has his thumb on a team, if players thrive because they fear and respect him, there’s no way that second-half kickoff is fumbled – no matter who’s bringing it out.
You want to see holy hell on a football field? Stay tuned – it could get much worse in Knoxville.
2. The Big Orange question
There was an intriguing backdrop to last weekend’s game, one that underscores failure on so many fronts in relation to Tennessee and all things coaching since Fulmer tearfully said goodbye 10 years ago.
Tennessee could have hired Dan Mullen last year – the same Dan Mullen who spent the previous decade building a winning, lasting program in the SEC badlands at Mississippi State — and instead watched his Florida team dismantle Pruitt’s team.
Tennessee and Florida are basically the same teams at this point, struggling to reinvent themselves with a lack of elite players.
All things being equal, coaching is always the great equalizer. Which brings us back to last season, and the absurdity of the Tennessee coaching search.
A day after Mississippi State lost its regular-season finale, then-Tennessee athletic director John Currie had conversations with Mullen on the Friday and Saturday after Thanksgiving. Mullen, according to text messages released by Tennessee, said he talked to none other than Peyton Manning about the job, too. Mullen would have crawled to Knoxville for the job.
Enter Florida, which was having second thoughts about Scott Frost after getting spurned by Chip Kelly. The Gators hired Mullen on Sunday.
That was only part of the nightmarish search for Tennessee, one that included more pining for a coach they weren’t getting (Jon Gruden), an offer to one coach (Greg Schiano) that had local and state politicians tweeting their displeasure, public no thanks yous from others (Dave Doeren, Jeff Brohm), and leaving another coach (Mike Leach) at the hiring altar because the Tennessee chancellor was in the process of firing Currie and replacing him with Fulmer, who might or might not have led a coup to push out Currie.
Yeah, I have no idea why this program is dysfunctional.
This, of course, comes on the heels of a risky hire (Lane Kiffin, who left after one season for the USC job), an awful hire (Derek Dooley, who did more harm than Butch Jones could ever dream of doing), and a bad fit of a hire (Jones), who never got enough credit for having three of the four winning seasons since Fulmer was fired.
So maybe, just maybe, Pruitt is desperately wading through the quagmire he inherited.
There’s no doubt Pruitt can recruit, and he proved his defensive coaching chops at three of the biggest programs in college football (Georgia, Florida State, Alabama) before arriving in Knoxville.
But make no mistake, Tennessee is a big-boy job. You’re not waltzing in to a program with that much history and expectations, and telling one of the most important players in your transition to go home in the middle of a game.
Unless you’re willing to do the same in a couple of years.
3. Unraveling in Orange, The Epilogue
Just in case you think we might be jumping in the deep end too quickly, understand this: The team that just humiliated the Vols will more than likely finish just ahead of them at fifth or sixth in the SEC East Division.
And if last weekend’s game didn’t break this team, consecutive games at Georgia, at Auburn, vs. Alabama, at South Carolina absolutely will.
More concerning is the historically soft November schedule that doesn’t look so soft anymore. Kentucky is the No.2 team in the East, and it’s not a stretch to say Missouri and Vanderbilt are in better shape right now than the Vols.
Teams get better as the season progresses, so there’s no telling where this season ends. But if you’re looking for wins right now, the only one left may be Group of 5 cupcake Charlotte.
4. Taking all comers
So now Nick Saban wants the media to be part of his fiefdom, to be complicit in his plan to prevent his Alabama team from hearing all things praise.
That might be his biggest problem of the season.
Because even though there are teams with similar talent (Clemson, Georgia, Ohio State), or conference rivals that might cause problems (LSU, Auburn), Alabama is so dangerous with Tua Tagovailoa changing the way they do business in Tuscaloosa, it’s going to be hard for anyone to derail this train.
When you’re the hunted (defending national champs) and the hunter (Tua’s drive for perfection) all in one, it doesn’t matter who’s on the other side of the field. Or for that matter, the point spread.
Up this week: Louisiana, and – get this – a point spread of 50 points. Fifty!
The Tide will be a double-digit favorite in every regular-season game this season, and maybe in the SEC Championship Game against likely East Division champ Georgia.
Why, you ask?
Alabama has had better defenses and better offensive lines. Alabama hasn’t had a better quarterback, and hasn’t had a better group of skill players around its best quarterback.
Alabama has freshmen and sophomores at critical skill positions who will one day play a long time in the NFL. One scout told me this weekend that all four of Alabama’s running backs – Damien Harris, Najee Harris, Josh Jacobs, Brian Robinson – will not only play in the NFL, but will start.
The only potential hiccup is an opponent that can expose an offensive line that – to Alabama’s standards – isn’t as physical in the run game or dominant in pass protection. That means Clemson and Ohio State – both deep and talented on the defensive line and active in the front seven – could cause problems in the postseason.
5. The Weekly Five
Five picks against the spread:
- South Carolina at Kentucky (+1)
- Florida at Mississippi State (-8.5)
- Ole Miss at LSU (-13.5)
- Arkansas at Texas A&M (-18.5)
- Louisiana (+50) at Alabama
Last week: 2-2-1.
6. Big and Blue and beautiful
The last time Kentucky cared about football during the month of October, some guy named Bear Bryant was on the sidelines.
OK, that’s not fair. Maybe it was 2007, when UK upset LSU and began a string inconceivable yet perfectly timed upsets that led to the craziest, most gorgeous season in the history of the BCS.
But I digress.
When the calendar turns to October, those in the Bluegrass think Midnight Madness and the cult of Big Blue hoops. And lookee here, Mark Stoops is about to change all of that.
If you weren’t impressed by back-to-back wins over Florida and Mississippi State, what happens when the Wildcats beat a very good South Carolina team this weekend, and begin October unbeaten and staring at a critical road game at Texas A&M?
Want to know why UK suddenly has grabbed outside pole position next to Georgia in the SEC East? Recruiting, development and timing.
Stoops significantly upgraded recruiting years ago, and it’s finally playing out this season with legitimate SEC lines of scrimmage, experienced and talented seniors all over the starting 11 on defense and a battering ram of a tailback (Benny Snell Jr.) who will play a long time in the NFL. Add to that, a brilliant decision to recruit JC quarterback Terry Wilson (if you throw 11 INTS in JC, that’s a red flag, but Stoops saw the potential) – and Kentucky football is thriving.
If you keep waiting for the old Kentucky to show, you’re going to miss out on one of the best stories in the SEC this season. Kentucky basketball opens its season Nov. 6 against Duke, which is sort of like Alabama and Ohio State beginning a football season.
Three days prior, Georgia rolls into Commonwealth Stadium in what could be the biggest football game since a guy named Bryant was coach.
7. A passing need
Here we are at the same point we’ve reached in each of the past two seasons. The big game arrives, and the passing game wilts at Mississippi State.
It’s easy to blame quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, but it’s a combination of factors that includes shoddy pass protection, receivers not fighting for balls, poor throws – and, of course, the talent on the other side of the ball.
So you can scream and yell all you want about a revenge game (or whatever you want to call it) when Mullen brings his Florida team back to the place he built (don’t kid yourself, his success built those immaculate facilities). The only thing that really matters – and will be a key to winning said “revenge game” – is Mississippi State and the passing game.
Clearly MSU will try to do what Kentucky did to Florida, and run between the tackles. But that game plan was successful because Terry Wilson hit some big throws, and completed 11-of-16 passes.
The Bulldogs aren’t winning big games this season – Florida, LSU, Auburn, Alabama – if the passing game line looks like last week’s loss to Kentucky: completing 50 percent of the passes, no touchdowns, one interception.
8. Ask and you shall receive
Matt: As much as I have tried, I can’t seem to get over the Gamecocks losing to Georgia. It just sticks in my craw, and I’m wondering where this program is headed under Muschamp. How can you be so unprepared in a big game like that?
Tommy: Tommy, my man, come off the ledge. Those games, like it or not, happen for a team that isn’t quite at the elite level and still trails the SEC elite in overall talent. But think about this: If South Carolina can upset Kentucky this weekend – the Gamecocks are actually favored by Las Vegas – it sets up a very favorable schedule.
Home games: Missouri, Texas A&M, Tennessee, Chattanooga.
Road games: Ole Miss, Florida, Clemson.
Again, if the Gamecocks can win this weekend, they’ll be favored in every game but one (Clemson) over the final two months. They might not win the East Division, but a double-digit win season will go a long way in recruiting the elite talent to eventually get there.
9. Numbers game
89: That’s LSU’s national rank in pass yards allowed per game, with pass-happy Ole Miss coming to town this weekend. This, of course, means absolutely nothing. Passing yards allowed is the most overrated statistic in football.
LSU’s defense harassed Miami quarterback Malik Rosier and Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham into two subpar games – and got 4 interceptions. It’s about affecting the quarterback with a pass rush, and defending passes in individual matchups.
Translation: Don’t put too much stock into passing yards given up, and passing yards per game (Ole Miss is 10th in the nation at 347.5 ypg.).
10. Quote to note
Auburn coach Gus Malzahn on the recent struggles of QB Jarrett Stidham: “We have a lot of confidence in (Stidham). He’ll rebound, He’s going to play extremely well. He’s one of the best quarterback in college football, so he’s our guy.”