Tennessee’s pathetic loss to Vanderbilt was Jeremy Pruitt’s last chance to use the “first-year head coach” excuse.

It used to be a valid reason for Pruitt’s missteps. Mistakes are going to happen. There were points in the season in which Pruitt’s team didn’t seem prepared. There were also points in the season in which Pruitt didn’t have a firm grasp on how to lead a big-time college football program. Kirby Smart made plenty of mistakes in his first year at Georgia; let’s hope Pruitt got all of that out of his system.

Pruitt knows that recruiting will be the determining factor as to whether he succeeds in his new endeavor. He said as much following the Vols’ 38-13 loss to Vandy.

“I think if a young man wants an opportunity to have a chance to play in the SEC really early, this would be a good place to start,” Pruitt said.

While that might be true, there’s reason for prospects to take pause before they sign up to play for Pruitt. With surprising wins over Auburn and Kentucky, these Vols should have proven they wanted to finish 6-6 and locked into a bowl game Saturday. They didn’t. Instead, Tennessee floundered through the Vanderbilt game, which was nothing more than embarrassing for UT. The Vols have lost 3 in a row and 5 of the past 7 games against Vanderbilt. The Commodores took notice on social media.

“Our City. Our State.” Vandy’s marketing department posted on social media.

Pruitt and the Vols had better be concerned about Vandy’s resurgence. The Vols don’t need a growing thorn in their side when it comes to recruiting. The Vols would be well served to spend much of their focus on recruiting on the mid-state area. However, they now have a much greater challenge recruiting Nashville. It is likely tougher to compete against Vanderbilt in decades, not since Gen. Robert Neyland was hired to turn the tide against the Commodores.

Had Pruitt and his Vols won Saturday, they could have said that Vanderbilt’s recent run of success was a thing of the past, that it was a byproduct of the Vols hiring two bad coaches. That argument is much more difficult to make now.

Pruitt has to sell mid-state prospects on hope. He has to convince those prospects that UT’s program is trending upward and that the Vols will be significantly better on the field than Vandy in the near and foreseeable future. That’s a much tougher sell after the Vols couldn’t even hang with the Commodores.

Vandy, like the Vols, can offer proximity for in-state prospects. The Dores can also offer a top-notch education. The Vols usually trumped that with a better football program that led to better facilities and more exposure on national television. Now, a prospect has to ask himself if UT will be a better football program over the next four years. Vandy still lags behind the Vols in facilities, but now that every game is on national television, what is to stop a mid-state prospect from deciding that staying closer to home is a better option? Pruitt had a chance to provide evidence to the contrary Saturday. He failed miserably.

The Vanderbilt loss, or a 5-7 regular season record, is reason to throw in the towel on Pruitt. After all, he was a first-year head coach. That excuse, however, has run its course.

If Pruitt looks like a first-year head coach next season, then it’s time for athletic director Phillip Fulmer to rethink his decision to hire Pruitt. Tennessee’s football program has not been one to hand over to a coach with a limited resume. Fulmer did that with Pruitt, who could still prove to be a diamond in the assistant coaching rough. Next season should prove plenty.

UT won’t face the gauntlet that it did 2018. The schedule lightens up considerably. If the Vols aren’t bowl eligible next season, then UT fans should fret. If the Vols don’t win 8 games, there should be cause for concern.

It’s certainly true that Pruitt was charged with changing the roster and culture at UT. That shouldn’t be expected to be an overnight fix. However, the early returns based on the 2018 season aren’t overly encouraging. And Pruitt has run out of one very understandable excuse. He’s no longer a first-year head coach.