Jeremy Pruitt has a chance to do something that I didn't think was possible heading into 2019
I didn’t think it could be done, but the table is set for Jeremy Pruitt.
You might have read that sentence or that headline and thought, “wait, you didn’t think that Tennessee would get to a bowl game?” That’s not it. I assumed Tennessee would get to a bowl game. In fact, I repeatedly said before the season that if I had to bet the farm on anyone in college football improving on its 2018 win total, it would be the 5-win Vols. It’s no guarantee that happens, but if Pruitt wins 2 of the final 3 games, Tennessee will indeed allow me to keep my farm.
(I don’t actually have a farm, but I like to think that if I had one, I’d be so confident in some of my picks that I’d be willing to bet everything, cows and all.)
Here’s what I didn’t think was possible for Tennessee.
I didn’t think that Tennessee could lose by a significant margin to the likes of Alabama, Florida and Georgia, and still have people believe at season’s end that Pruitt’s process is working. Had you told me in the preseason that those losses would happen, as well as losses to Georgia State and BYU, I would have laughed you out of the room if you tried to sell me on Pruitt’s plan. I probably would have said, “uh, can y’all get Butch Jones back?”
But here we are — Tennessee is heading into Week 11 with 4 wins, and amazingly, people are buying into Pruitt’s vision. Even more amazingly, I think I’m one of them.
The veterans like Darrell Taylor, Nigel Warrior, Ty Chandler and Jauan Jennings who could hve quit on this team after the brutal start to the season have since righted the ship and turned Tennessee into one of the SEC’s most intriguing teams in the latter half of the season. Is part of it competition-based? Possibly, but think about this.
If the Vols finish the regular season with 4 wins in the final 5 games to clinch bowl eligibility, it’ll mark the program’s best 5-game regular season stretch since the thrilling start of the 2016 season.
Want something even more incredible that’s on the table? Tennessee has 3 SEC games remaining. If — this is a huge “if” — the Vols ran the table, they’d have a winning conference record and a chance to play for an 8th win in a bowl game. What a monumental, timely turnaround that would be heading into the home stretch of the Early Signing Period.
And while that’s by no means a given — Tennessee could be a slight underdog in 2 of those games — the public seems to be on board with that possibility. The Vols opened as 4-point underdogs at Kentucky, and that line has since shifted to a pick ’em (as of Wednesday morning).
It’s a drastic, strange turn of events considering where this program was at a couple of months ago. There were calls (from some) for Phillip Fulmer to step in and replace Pruitt. Even those who believed in Pruitt as the guy coming into the season couldn’t spin the woeful start to the season. When Tennessee’s schedule was broken down in the offseason, that favorable nonconference slate without a Power 5 matchup was supposed to yield 7-8 wins easily.
I actually wrote that I thought it would be wise of Tennessee fans not to set a line of expectation for wins in 2019, so long as it was at least 6. I believed that the better way to judge this program was how it fared in those aforementioned 3 matchups against Alabama, Florida and Georgia.
Maybe it was because the Alabama game was closer than what the final score indicated — the Jarrett Guarantano goal line fumble was well-documented — but forgotten was the fact that against Florida and Georgia, Tennessee was outscored by an average of 30 points. That was somehow worse than last year when Pruitt’s squad fell by 26 points to each of their SEC East rivals.
So why has the narrative surrounding Pruitt changed to where even people like Kirk Herbstreit are praising the Vols and predicting bright days ahead?
(It took roughly 6 weeks for him to change his stance on Tennessee, and understandably so.)
— Davey Hudson (@Davey_Hudson) September 14, 2019
What stands out to Herbstreit and those like myself who buried Tennessee in mid-September is the way in which the program is winning. It’s been convincing. It’s been defensive-focused. It’s been without a clear idea of what the quarterback situation is.
Tennessee is coming off consecutive wins of 20-plus points against actual FBS opponents (those teams might even go to a bowl game!) in the regular season for the first time since 2010. Ironic is the fact that the 2010 streak also resulted in the 3d and 4th wins of the season.
That happened in the first year of the Derek Dooley era. The Vols rode a 4-game winning streak into the Music City Bowl after Dooley, like Pruitt, also suffered blowout losses to those 3 Tennessee rivals. Dooley never beat one of those teams in those 3 years. It took Butch Jones until Year 3 to beat Georgia, and it took until Year 4 to beat Florida (he obviously never beat Alabama).
Pruitt’s time at Tennessee will be judged on how he fares against those 3 opponents. That’s what I told myself coming into this season, and I still think that’s true.
Still, though. I tip my cap to Pruitt because all of those cliché things about “guys buying in” looks like it’s finally happening. Who knows how they’d fare against Georgia and Florida if they played tomorrow. It might have happened later than many expected, and it still could result in another postseason at home, but at least Pruitt is setting himself up to have a lot of momentum this offseason.
And maybe this time, offseason momentum will actually carry into the upcoming season on Rocky Top.