An open letter to Tennessee football fans: It'll get a lot better, but probably not this year
Dear Tennessee fans,
I’d love to tell you what to expect in the upcoming 2018 football season. However, to be honest, your guess is about as good as mine. I have some strong inclinations as to what will happen this season, but anyone who says they have great insight into UT’s football program just isn’t being forthright.
Let’s start with Jeremy Pruitt. The first-year head coach seems to be a fiery, no-nonsense competitor who isn’t afraid to ruffle some feathers. That could be exactly what the Vols need after Butch Jones, who was known for misleading and mistreating players and administrators.
Is there a chance that Pruitt’s approach could be a detriment for the Vols, especially in a season in which wins could be hard to come by? I guess that could happen, but once Pruitt’s expertise as a defensive coach are revealed, he’ll be readily accepted, and I believe that will happen — eventually. Pruitt has fielded great defenses before at various stops. I’ve asked several people who have worked with or against Pruitt about him and everyone tells me he’s an exceptional defensive coach. As for shaking hands and kissing babies, he might still need some work on that. It will be interesting to see how he handles a heartbreaking loss because that is coming.
I can promise you one thing. Just because the Vols lose a big game, don’t expect a commitment to come calling on the following Sunday. That’s a Jones move. It’s not very Pruitt like. Pruitt isn’t worried about the public relations aspect of being a head coach.
I’d like to hope that in tough times, Pruitt calls upon UT athletic director Phillip Fulmer. He could be a valuable asset.
I’ve gone on record with my quarterback prediction. I think Keller Chryst will eventually be UT’s starting quarterback because he’s a better fit for a West coast offense than Jarrett Guarantano. However, I wouldn’t bet my mortgage on it.
There is — and rightfully so — serious concern about UT’s offensive line. The Vols simply don’t have the pieces to field a strong unit up front. If the Vols can at least field a serviceable offensive line, that would be a huge addition. It doesn’t matter what quarterback plays behind UT’s offensive line if it’s one of the worst in the SEC, which is a real possibility.
I’m very interested to see what the Vols do defensively. I know Pruitt would like to be aggressive, but does he have the secondary to play man coverage? Moreover, does he have the pass rushers to limit the time his defensive back will have to cover the opposition? Those are all questions that should be answered fairly early in the season.
There should be plenty of excitement around the season opener in Charlotte, N.C., against West Virginia. That game could set the tone for the season. Imagine if the Vols can upset the Mountaineers. With games against ETSU and UTEP, the Vols could host Florida with a 3-0 record. That would be a special day that UT fans deserve after all they’ve been through. Frankly, I wouldn’t be shocked if the Vols actually beat Florida. Both teams have roster issues and the game is in Knoxville. Florida’s 11-game winning steak ended in Knoxville 2 years ago; I think the Vols have a legitimate chance.
As for the Georgia game, don’t expect too much there. Simply put, the Bulldogs are much better than the Vols. I’d like to be able to tell you that things will get better after a likely loss to Georgia, but they probably won’t.
The Vols will have a bye week after Georgia, then play at Auburn, host Alabama and play at South Carolina. Including Florida, that’s an incredibly tough row to hoe. I know it’s sobering to think about, but going 2-3 in that stretch would be an accomplishment.
The final four games will all depend on the Vols’ mindset at the time. Will the Vols still be bowl eligible? Will they be beaten down by the aforementioned stretch of SEC games? That’s tough to predict. However, the Vols should be able to beat Charlotte, Kentucky, Missouri and Vanderbilt to close out the season if there is still something to play for other than just pride.
Missouri is the most likely loss for the Vols in the final four games. However, I’m willing to bet that the Tigers turn in a disappointing season with some guy named Derek Dooley calling the plays. Think about Dooley’s career for a moment. He had a losing record at Louisiana Tech, ran the Vols into the ground and never helped the Dallas Cowboys receivers improve on their impressive athletic ability. But don’t get me started on Dooley, who is now the offensive coordinator at Missouri. Look out Drew Lock.
After the season is over, I believe we’ll look back on the Vols as a tough but overmatched team. The Vols will be conservative, won’t be able to avoid turnovers but will play with better fundamentals and alignment than in the past.
Let Dooley’s visit to Knoxville on Nov. 17 remind you how bad things have been over the past 10 years. There has been Lane Kiffin’s departure, Dooley’s ineptness and Jones’ divisive, conniving ways. Tennessee’s fan base never deserved any of that.
I don’t know how many games Pruitt will win this year or in his tenure at UT. However, I believe he knows football at a very high level from what I’ve been told by those who have been at practice. I also know this: Tennessee fans deserve better than what they’ve had to tolerate. At some point, things will change and the Vols will be a challenger in the SEC East. Don’t expect that to happen this year. Just enjoy the ride and hope the Vols reach a bowl game. That would be a vast improvement and a successful season.