SDS Roundtable: Tennessee is rolling, but how long until the Vols win the SEC East?
Each SDS roundtable discussion involves the SDS staff providing individual answers and comments to questions covering a wide range of sports and non-sports topics. In this discussion, we ask the question: Tennessee has all kinds of momentum on the recruiting trail. How long will it be until the Vols win the SEC East?
A bit of background …
Jeremy Pruitt is doing work. The Vols’ 2021 recruiting class is ranked No. 2 in the country and shows no signs of slowing down. Everybody is talking about the Vols. Paul Finebaum thinks they’re back. The question is: Are they really back? When will Tennessee turn all of this positive recruiting into an SEC East title?
Jon Cooper, SDS co-founder
We’ve been asking ourselves this question for several years, and it just has not happened. The Vols are recruiting lights out on the trail, and in the midst of the coronavirus (non-visits to campus), Jeremy Pruitt and staff have found a way to secure commitments when others can’t.
I’ve always said that college football is just better when the Volunteers are competing for championships. Right now, Georgia has a stranglehold on the SEC East, with the Gators right behind the Dawgs. Tennessee hasn’t won 10 games in a season since 2007, the last time it won the division. I would set the over/under at 5 years for Pruitt to win the SEC East. There’s a talent gap at Georgia and Florida right now, but the Vols are making up ground.
With respect to the East, Florida has won 14 of the past 15 games against Tennessee, while Georgia has won 8 of the past 10 games. The Vols are also at a disadvantage of playing Alabama every year, as the Tide have won 13 in a row.
Connor O’Gara, Senior national columnist
I’ll say 2022 is the earliest I could see it happening.
I think to go from a team that didn’t win an SEC game before Jeremy Pruitt arrived to beating yearly top-10 teams in Florida and Georgia is more than a 3-year process. Last year’s scoreboard reflected that. You don’t turn things around that quickly, especially with how well those teams recruited. In order for that to happen in 2022, we still need to see a significant jump in 2020.
The constant against those East foes is that Tennessee’s offensive line cannot protect a sub-par quarterback against those teams. That’s an awful combination. More than anything else, that’s the area that the Vols need to bridge the gap in. That can and should change in 2020. But will it change enough to flip a pair of 4-score results in a year? No.
By 2022, we’re talking about a Tennessee team that should finally have the depth to compete with those teams in the trenches. There should either be an established quarterback (Harrison Bailey?) or at the very least, an established offensive identity.
Tennessee won’t be the king of the East until that happens.
Michael Bratton, News editor
Despite being the resident Tennessee graduate of SDS, even I think it’s way too early for this question.
Tennessee’s recent success on the recruiting trail has been incredible but it’s clearly being magnified by the fact there’s just not much else going on in the sports world right now. It’s great for the program to have all these elite prospects commit, but the real challenge is getting them to sign in December.
Jeremy Pruitt looks to be recruiting on a level that’s on par with Florida and Georgia, but these players won’t be on campus until 2021 and one recruiting class doesn’t match the level of recruiting Kirby Smart has been achieved since his arrival in Athens.
Moving on from recruiting, I need to see Tennessee beat Alabama, Georgia or Florida before I consider them a threat to win the East, and the Vols haven’t been competitive against any of those teams outside of last season’s loss to the Crimson Tide. It’s going to take some time before the Vols can beat 2 of those teams in a season and it might take a sweep for Tennessee to advance to Atlanta.
All that being said, if JT Daniels decides to make the jump from USC to Tennessee and is eligible immediately, I’ll be changing my tune in a hurry because an elite quarterback can change the fortunes of a program immediately.
Neil Blackmon, Florida columnist
They have to beat Florida more than once every 15 years to do it. I actually like their chances against the Gators in Knoxville this fall — it’s the toughest ask on Florida’s road slate and you know Jeremy Pruitt doesn’t want to get embarrassed by Florida for a third consecutive season.
That said, it takes more than one excellent recruiting class to rebuild and the Vols’ schedule in 2020 is brutal. What happens to the recruiting momentum if all they have to show for last year’s strong finish and this recruiting momentum is another 7-5 campaign? These are fair questions, especially when Florida has won 2 consecutive New Year’s 6 games under Dan Mullen and Kirby Smart’s Georgia juggernaut isn’t going anywhere.
If Tennessee keeps recruiting at this torrid pace, they can contend in the East by 2021 or 2022. But they competed for the East under Butch Jones, too. The difference for me is Pruitt is always going to have that defense salty. Can they add enough perimeter playmakers and develop a QB? If so, maybe they break through and get to Atlanta in 2022.
Adam Spencer, Newsletter editor
The Vols are building something strong on Rocky Top, but asking for them to compete for a division title in 2020 is too much. Even 2021 is probably too much at this point. I still think Tennessee is third in the East hierarchy, behind Florida and Georgia in some order.
That said, I love what Jeremy Pruitt has done on the recruiting trails recently. There’s excitement in Knoxville again and that’s only going to help the Vols down the road. By 2022, I think Jim Chaney will have a talented QB in place and playmakers around him. Defensively, the guys Pruitt is bringing in as part of the 2021 class should be ready to contribute in big ways. That spells trouble for the rest of the East.
I don’t expect Georgia and Florida to fall off anytime soon, but by 2022, I think the Vols will make it a 3-headed monster in the SEC East.
Chris Wright, Executive editor
When is Nick Saban retiring? Let’s go with the year after that.
Tennessee has a unique hurdle that other East teams don’t have to clear. The Vols play Alabama every year. Georgia faces Auburn every year. Florida plays LSU every year. Auburn and LSU fluctuate, just like almost every other team in the country. Florida and LSU have split their past 4 meetings. The Tigers only have 7-5 advantage in the past 12. Georgia has beaten Auburn in 8 of their past 10 meetings and 12 of the past 15. Alabama doesn’t even have 12 SEC losses in the past 12 years under Nick Saban. Alabama hasn’t even lost to an SEC East team since 2010.
Alabama doesn’t fluctuate. It annihilates.
As such, every year, Tennessee starts its SEC East title quest a game in the hole. It’s wholly unfair. I understand the history, the tradition, the rivalry and the need to keep playing Alabama on The Third Saturday in October. What I will never understand is why these crossover games count in the SEC standings.
Care to guess who was the most recent SEC East champion that beat Alabama in the regular season? It was South Carolina … in 2010.
The past 9 East champs were lucky enough to avoid Alabama in the regular season.
Georgia won the East in 2017, 2018 and 2019. It avoided Bama all 3 years.
Florida won the East in 2015 and 2016. It avoided Bama both times.
Missouri won the East in 2013 and 2014. It also avoided Bama both times.
Georgia won the East in 2011 and 2012. It missed Bama both times.
That’s more than mere coincidence. Until that dynamic changes, Tennessee might creep closer to Georgia and Florida, but it isn’t getting back to Atlanta.