Everyone remembers that kid in school.

They were a little rough around the edges, but they were one of the best students in class. For one reason or another, their home life didn’t exactly set them up for success. Whatever the case, you got the sense that their path to a brighter future was filled with potholes and you found yourself feeling sorry for them. Heck, you might have been that kid.

That’s how I feel about the Tennessee defense ahead of Saturday’s showdown against Alabama.

That Vols defense, I believe, is smart. I mean, good. It ranks No. 24 in FBS in total defense, it allowed 3.56 yards per rush and it surrendered just 4 passing touchdowns in the first 4 games.

But in order to actually taste success, it has to overcome hurdles that most don’t have to deal with. Like, there’s a completely ineffective offense that can’t stop committing turnovers. The quarterback situation is a mess. And to make matters worse, defensive line coach/co-defensive coordinator Jimmy Brumbaugh was fired after just 4 games.

That defense deserves better. Instead, the last week and a half suggests it has a bad home life that created a roadblock on the path to success.

And what awaits? Alabama, which just scored 41 points against what appeared to be a historically good Georgia defense. It’s a Crimson Tide squad that ranks No. 2 in FBS with 48.5 points per game, and if you go back to the start of 2019 when Steve Sarkisian became the offensive coordinator, Alabama is riding a streak of 17 consecutive games with 35 points.

If Tennessee’s defense is the smart kid with some tough surroundings, Alabama’s offense is the valedictorian. Unfortunately for the Vols this weekend, Alabama’s offense might feel more like the school bully.

The biggest issues preventing the Tennessee defense from reaching its potential are staff turnover and a question mark at quarterback. That came to a head in the last week and a half with Jarrett Guarantano’s collapse and Brumbaugh’s firing, but really, those were the same issues facing the program entering 2020.

Guarantano was the same guy who was benched in the second half of the Gator Bowl … only to return to lead a comeback victory. The Vols owned the longest active win streak of any Power 5 team just less than 2 weeks ago, but as any Tennessee fan will tell you, the quarterback situation was never quite figured out. It didn’t help matters that Guarantano’s possible replacement was talented true freshman Harrison Bailey, who didn’t get spring camp and was forced to miss part of fall camp after being in COVID-related quarantine.

So now, is Pruitt going to send Bailey out to make his first career start against Nick Saban’s defense? There’s baptism by fire, and then there’s that. No matter who Pruitt starts at quarterback, it seems inevitable that the offense will turn the ball over and put his defense in tough spots for the third week in a row.

And as for the staff turnover, think of what the Tennessee upperclassmen have dealt with. Seven of Pruitt’s original 10 assistants from his 2018 staff are gone, including all of the original defensive staff members. That was true before Brumbaugh’s firing. Including that, look at all of Pruitt’s staff departures since 2018:

Now one might say that Pruitt is the constant in all of this and that it’s his defense anyway. There’s also the point that Brian Niedermeyer, who has been Pruitt’s best recruiter, is still on staff. That’s all well and good.

But it’s awfully hard to build a program up and sustain success with turnover like that, especially without an established head coach. That’s still the biggest issue facing Tennessee. You can argue that the only area where the Vols have had this linear progression is on the defensive side of the ball. Two weeks ago, I would’ve told you that the offensive line had that, but -1 rushing yards against Georgia doesn’t suggest that the Vols are elite up front.

It’s no secret that Tennessee looked like a completely different team after coming out of the locker room at halftime against Georgia. Look at the breakdown of Tennessee’s offensive possessions in the last 6 quarters:

  • 19 possessions
  • 1 scoring drive
  • 7 turnovers
  • 2 drives of 4 minutes
  • 9 drives of 3 plays or less
  • Average of 5.6 plays run
  • Average of 16.6 yards gained

Forget flipping the field. Tennessee’s offense isn’t even giving the defense enough time to grab a water bottle.

You’ve got guys like Henry To’o To’o and Deandre Johnson playing at an All-American level and yet, they’re not getting any sort of help. Pruitt’s defensive vision is actually coming to fruition, but it’s sort of all for naught when your offense continues to struggle that badly.

There’s some Florida Will Muschamp similarities brewing with Pruitt. A former Nick Saban assistant took over a big-time program and established a strong defensive culture. We thought he had things figured out in Year 2, but there were cracks in the foundation. He mismanaged the quarterback situation and didn’t make the right personnel decisions, which spoiled any chance he had at long-term success.

That’s starting to sound a lot like Pruitt. That’s the risk associated with hiring a lifetime assistant to be the head coach at a big-time program. We saw it with Muschamp at Florida. Kirby Smart bucked that trend at Georgia, but his decisions at the quarterback position have certainly been well-documented. If we don’t see a significant offensive turnaround with Tennessee, it’ll be fair to start wondering about that with Pruitt.

I wouldn’t bank on that happening against an Alabama defense that just pitched a 2nd-half shutout against Georgia. I’m not sure I’d even bank on it the following game when Tennessee faces an Arkansas defense that’s been a revelation under Barry Odom.

Tennessee is an early casualty of the SEC’s conference-only schedule. There’s nowhere to hide. If you’ve got weaknesses, it’s only a matter of time before they see the light of day. Maybe the Vols could’ve gotten the offensive issues figured out with a cupcake matchup. That at least would’ve given Bailey some much-needed reps.

That obviously wasn’t an option. All that defense can do is play the hand it was dealt.

No matter how unfair it is.