Tennessee football: Now that's an opener we can talk about
What a difference a year makes.
No one was thinking about how the 2019 season began on Saturday as Tennessee went on the road to beat South Carolina 31-27 in the opener for both teams. So before we look at the win over the Gamecocks, let’s revisit how things unfolded a little more than 12 months ago.
Remember, the Volunteers lost to Georgia State 38-30. Yes, Georgia State. UT was hapless and Jeremy Pruitt looked to be in over his head. Some even called for Pruitt to be replaced by athletic director Phillip Fulmer.
Pruitt came off far better in this season’s opener. Pruitt looked deft as he led the Vols to a win over the Gamecocks. The Vols didn’t need luck to beat South Carolina. They were just the better team even as South Carolina made a push at the end. Pruitt made the right moves to hold onto the victory.
There was more to Tennessee’s victory than just a 1-0 start. The Vols were more prepared to begin the season than they were a year ago, despite having to overcome the challenges that all coaches face with COVID-19. UT looked far more talented than in recent memory. Tyson Chandler and Eric Gray were a formidable one-two punch at running back. Eight different Vols caught a pass on Saturday. Quarterback Jarrett Guarantano was efficient, completing 19-of-31 passes for 259 yards and a touchdown. Most important, he didn’t throw an interception in a game where a turnover could have easily tilted the game toward the Gamecocks on the road. The Vols have a talented, experienced quarterback who can be a guiding force on the road. When was the last time you could say that?
“If you play in the SEC, (the games are) dogfights every week,” Guarantano said. “When you go on the road in the SEC, nothing comes easy. You saw that a couple times today. But I think this team is very together — the chemistry we have in the locker room, the love that we have for one another.
“The atmosphere that Coach Pruitt has brought to this university has kind of been implemented throughout. You can see it in the team in these tough wins, that we never give up on each other and we’re fighting to the end.”
Those words may sound like coach-speak, like you’ve heard them before. Players spoke glowingly about Derek Dooley and Butch Jones. I don’t need to remind you how that turned out. However, this time the public comments like Guarantano’s seem to ring true. There aren’t rumors of malcontent amongst the team. There aren’t incredibly inept decisions made on the field – at least there weren’t on Saturday. There’s no reason to think that a pitfall is on the horizon. The Vols look poised for success.
Yes, Tennessee needed a bit of good fortune to beat South Carolina, namely a recovery of a muffed punt in the closing moments when it looked like the Gamecocks were readying for a comeback. But before you call that play just good luck, take note of who made the play. It was a freshman named Jimmy Holiday. His inclusion on special teams is proof that UT’s roster is much deeper than it had been since Pruitt took over.
Tennessee doesn’t have to play its key players on special teams any longer. The Vols aren’t loaded like an elite program but they’re deep enough to keep their key players fresh when they’re needed on offense and defense. That wasn’t the case a year ago. And when it comes to playmakers, Henry To’o To’o’s interception return for a touchdown was proof that there is a special player or two on UT’s roster.
No one knows if Pruitt can overcome SEC coaching rivals Nick Saban or Kirby Smart – or even Dan Mullen or Mark Stoops. That really doesn’t matter just yet. Pruitt’s roster is deeper and more talented than when he was hired. If he can’t get Tennessee to a championship, then UT’s next coach should have a much better chance than when Pruitt took over an incredibly depleted roster.
So much for those that said Fulmer should take over.