There was a time when a bowl trip to Memphis would have been embarrassing for Tennessee’s once-elite football program. Now, a trip to play in Auto Zone Liberty Bowl or any other mid-level bowl would be more than welcome.
Just ask Jeremy Pruitt. Tennessee’s first-year head coach said he’d welcome a bowl bid even if the Vols were 5-7, which has proven possible depending on the number of 6-6 teams at the end of the season. I would have once shamed the Vols for even considering awarding their players with a bowl trip for going 5-7. However, I can assure you that other than the fact that it would show the program’s progress, there would be nothing rewarding about UT’s potential bowl destination.
The actual bowl game is quite inconsequential. The practices that lead up to the bowl game would be the greatest advantage of going bowling. With two additional weeks of practice, the Vols would basically be holding another spring camp. That could pay dividends as Pruitt continues to develop his team. Will that be fun for the players? Probably not. However, in case you haven’t noticed, Pruitt doesn’t exactly seem like a coach who is focused on fun. He wants the Vols to improve. There’s no better way to do that than on the practice field.
The fact that the Vols are even in this position is quite impressive. To still be chasing a bowl bid, the Vols had to beat two ranked opponents, Auburn on the road and Kentucky at home on Saturday. Those were no small feats.
Certainly, the Vols caught both teams at good times. Kentucky was coming off of a heartbreaking loss to Georgia that ended the Wildcats’ hopes of winning the SEC East. The Vols faced Auburn after the Tigers fell to Mississippi State 23-9. Moreover, Auburn was in a state of flux when the Vols traveled to The Plains. Many around Auburn’s program were pondering whether coach Gus Malzahn should be retained despite a significant buyout. Give the Vols credit. Their timing couldn’t have been better leading into their two biggest upsets this season.
However, the Vols still deserve plenty of credit. They still won those two games against teams with better rosters. Were the Vols fortunate? Perhaps, but considering how unfortunate the Vols have been for most of the past decade, they deserve a few lucky breaks.
Also, if you want to point to UT’s fortuitous timing, it’s important to show the other side of the coin as well. The Vols outplayed South Carolina, another ranked team, before falling just short 27-24 in Columbia. Had I told any Tennessee fan before the season that UT would beat two ranked opponents and nearly a third, any logical fan would be crazy to pass that up that bet.
The Vols have certainly shown they’re far from elite at times this season, especially in lopsided losses against West Virginia, Florida, Georgia and Alabama. UT was simply outmanned against the Mountaineers and Crimson Tide and didn’t show up against the Gators or Bulldogs. The latter appears to have been addressed. The Vols could have played flat at other times in the season, but that’s to be expected in a transition year. As for being outmanned, that’s going to take a season or two of recruiting to overcome that.
Tennessee has two games left. They must win one to become a surefire bowl team. However, imagine if the Vols can win both. It’s certainly possible. Missouri is 6-4 and Vanderbilt is 4-6. If the Vols can finish 7-5, there’s no question that this season should be considered a huge success. As long as Alabama keeps rolling, there’s no question that Nick Saban will be the SEC Coach of the Year. To this point, Bama’s run has been historic.
However, if the Vols go 7-5, Pruitt deserves some consideration for SEC Coach of the Year. That would be a massive turnaround for a program that was 4-8 last season and a coach that has never been a head coach in his career.
Pruitt’s dry demeanor, especially on his coach’s shows, is incredible easy to make fun of. However, he’s actually brought quite a bit of excitement to UT. Tennessee fans chanted “overrated” at the end of the Kentucky game to let the Wildcats know what UT’s faithful thought of them. That’s the kind of confidence this program has been lacking for years.
Those chants and beating Kentucky seemed a bit like the old days. A bowl bid would also be another step in the right direction.