Tennessee football: Optimism is building. It's justified and wonderful
Let’s not kid ourselves. While Tennessee won on the road against a formidable opponent, they probably aren’t going to be competing for any sort of championship this season.
That, however, isn’t what is important at this current time. It’s worth taking into account that UT beat a quality opponent that happens to reside in the SEC East. Also, in case you missed it, the Vols have won 7 games in a row. That’s not too shabby considering where UT has been recently. The Vols have also been riding a recruiting wave that has netted 25 commitments and the No. 6th ranking in the nation. While recruiting could change drastically in the coming months as prospects take more visits, a top 10 ranking in late September is something to be proud of.
So where does UT stand in Year 3 under Jeremy Pruitt? Let’s take a look at the other SEC East teams that the Vols will be facing this season. Saturday was proof that the Vols are better than South Carolina, but what about the rest of the division?
Until Florida proves otherwise, Georgia will be the king of the SEC East this season and the foreseeable future. That’s what the Vols are striving for. Georgia overcame a very sloppy first half and inconsistent QB play but still put away Arkansas 37-10 on Saturday just as it should have.
Florida is still most likely ahead of the Vols. The Gators beat Ole Miss 51-35 and look to be rising under Dan Mullen, also in his 3rd season year in Gainesville.
Then things get interesting. Kentucky is an incredible developmental program, but the Wildcats got beat by Auburn on Saturday 29-13. For every great season that Kentucky has, 2 more sub-par seasons are likely on the horizon. There will always be a glass ceiling in Lexington. The Cats can be respectable, but not intimidating.
As for the rest of the SEC East, the Vols shouldn’t have any problem with Missouri or Vanderbilt this season or anytime soon. The Vols have a coach in place now who can take advantage of the attributes that neither the Tigers nor Commodores will ever have.
So as of late September, it looks like Tennessee is solidly the 3rd best team in the SEC East and I’m certainly not ruling out that they could beat Florida since that game is in Knoxville. Also, keep this in mind: Mullen is known as an offensive coach. However, Pruitt is also considered one of the top coaches on his side of the ball, defense. A solid defense always has a chance and the Vols could develop into that by the time they face the Gators on Dec. 5.
There is, however, one problem.
While UT is likely the 3rd-best team in the SEC, its record might not indicate that. The Vols’ crossover schedule is brutal. UT would be commended if they could win 2 of 3 games against Alabama, Auburn and Texas A&M. One victory against those 3 seems plausible, but UT also could lose all 3. Fortunately, Arkansas should be a surefire win for the Vols.
So for all of the improvement that UT has made under Pruitt, the Vols could easily be 5-5. That doesn’t exactly jump off the standings page. For those who say you are what your record is, there is some truth to that. However, if the Vols are 5-5 on Dec. 6 but have shown that they’re the 2nd- or 3rd-best team in the SEC East, this season shouldn’t be looked at as a bust – especially with the outside circumstances that no one can control.
The Vols are much bigger, much more physical and much more able to compete in the SEC. That may not show up for the casual fan this season but 2021 could be the season in which the Vols become relevant again and, more important, believe that they can compete with anyone in the conference.
Does anyone not think that they Vols aren’t much better off this season then they were under the past 2 coaches? There is stability, a plan and competency. That hasn’t been the case since Lane Kiffin was Tennessee’s coach in 2009.
It won’t be all smooth sailing this season. There will be some bumpy roads ahead, but Saturday was a strong indication that things definitely are on the right track.