Tennessee football: Vols clinch bowl bid but Pruitt not celebrating yet
Jeremy Pruitt had every reason to bellow praise upon himself and his team after their 24-20 win over Missouri on Saturday.
The opportunity was there. The Vols beat the Tigers with an explosive offense and became bowl eligible in the process. It will be the first bowl trip for the Vols since 2016.
Pruitt, who is a defensive coach to the core, showcased an offense that was historically explosive on Saturday. Jauan Jennings, Marquez Callaway and Josh Palmer each had more than 100 yards receiving, a first in school history. That’s pretty impressive for a school once known as “Receiver U.” There were a lot of great receiver groups that never accomplished as much.
Think of all the impactful receivers that have donned the orange. Still, no trio did what the Vols did on Saturday.
Pruitt could have gloated about his passing game, which accounted for 415 yards. He didn’t. He could have gloated about making it to the postseason. He didn’t. And that may have been his most telling quote of his short head-coaching career.
“It means we won 6 games,” Pruitt said when asked about being bowl eligible. “When we started the season, making a bowl wasn’t what I was thinking.”
That may have not been what Pruitt, who clearly expected to win more games, was thinking. However, it fell right in line with what many UT fans wanted. “Just get to a bowl game,” was a fair mantra to have before the season began. It seemed like a pipe dream after the Vols lost their season opener to Georgia State.
Now, in one of the most incredible turnarounds in the nation, Tennessee is bowl eligible and could finish the season with 7 wins and a postseason spot in Florida. Pruitt could have lost his team in September. Now, he is controlling the narrative in November.
Think about what all Pruitt has overcome. Injuries on an already depleted roster were a huge hurdle. Sub-par quarterback play and a revolving door at the position was another. Fan and media criticism certainly didn’t help. Yet Pruitt and the Vols have overcome.
This season could prove to be a microcosm of Pruitt’s career if things go well. This season, like UT football in general, was written off as a lost cause. The Vols weren’t going to turn things around in 2019. They weren’t going to make a bowl. That’s what the critics said. Now, they’ve done both.
National pundits have said Tennessee football can’t ever be elite again. The Vols don’t have enough in-state talent and can’t offer the exclusivity of being on national television as they did in the 1980s and 1990s. Everyone is broadcast nationally now. A case could be made that the Vols can never compete with teams like Alabama and Georgia on a regular basis.
Pruitt is trying to change that storyline — and he’s on the right path.
The Vols have two weeks of bowl practice to attend. There have been times where UT has treated bowl trips like a vacation. Practice was an afterthought. That won’t be the case this year. Pruitt will work his team hard. This will be a mini-preseason camp for the Vols. Even if the Vols manage 7 wins, Pruitt won’t be happy. He’ll push his team throughout bowl practice to get more out of them in 2020.
Bowl trips are supposed to be fun. I’m guessing they won’t be that much fun under Pruitt. He doesn’t exactly seem like a guy who likes to be the life of the party, especially on the company dime.
“I think it’s great for our program, to get the extra practices,” Pruitt said. “I think it will be great in recruiting. I’m excited that our season is extended because I like being around these guys. So it’s a huge deal.”
If Tennessee can beat Vanderbilt and win a bowl game, the Vols would suddenly be 8-5. Then the hype train will begin. Look for the Vols to be picked as one of the surprise teams of 2020. Some might even pick them to win the SEC East, seriously.
The Vols will likely head into next season as the favorite against every team in the SEC East except for Georgia. That’s quite a turnaround for the underdog that other teams have enjoyed kicking around.
If the Vols do become SEC East contenders next season, fans will rejoice. Don’t expect Pruitt to do the same. His expectations are higher still.