Tennessee football: Vols surging with critical recruiting season coming
Remember when Tennessee dominated Vanderbilt because the Volunteers could? Remember when the Vols would close strong down the stretch? That all happened … again.
There was a time not that long ago that the Vols were known to fold against Vandy. There was a time — you may remember — when November was about as exciting as a Thanksgiving dinner that offered Spam as the main course. So much for canned meat.
But on Saturday, the Vols provided a glimpse of what they could be in a 28-10 win against Vanderbilt. UT showcased a bit of young flash and a dominant defense. It almost felt like the good ole days.
Not too long ago, some were wondering if UT head coach Jeremy Pruitt was in over his head. Some even said Tennessee athletic director Phillip Fulmer should assume the reins. No one is thinking that now.
The Vols finished the regular season 7-5. They’ll wait for whatever bowl bid comes calling. Don’t be surprised if the Vols land in a Florida bowl. Nashville, Memphis and Shreveport are for teams stumbling into December. The Vols are surging into the New Year.
For a program that prides itself on winning championships, the 2019 Vols won’t be held in that same vein. However, they could be remembered as the team that helped UT return to being significant once again. The Vols closed the season with a winning record. That’s a long way from that loss to Georgia State.
What caused the sudden turnaround? Pruitt. Simply put, he was the perfect coach for the resurrection of this season. He was steadfast in his beliefs of simply getting better every day and building a foundation on defense and more defense.
The Vols rank seventh in the SEC in defense but that doesn’t illustrate just how far they have come. When needed, UT’s defense was ready. The Vols have held their last four opponents to 21 points or fewer. No, that’s not dynasty worthy, but it’s progress.
Progress means relevancy and Tennessee has not been relevant for a decade.
Imagine a couple of 5-star recruits signing with the Vols now that they’re being mentioned once again. More importantly, imagine a special signal-caller that took a gander at Tennessee’s resurgence. Has he been swayed? That could be the difference. Imagine a special quarterback that didn’t look elsewhere had UT’s season gone down the tubes.
Let’s not put too much on just one player, but a special quarterback and a handful of defensive playmakers is all the Vols need. Yes, they’re that close. The Vols have proven they’ll rally behind their head coach and have the mental fortitude to overcome tough times. That leads to success.
The Vols are suddenly a hot bowl team with a 7-5 record. Moreover, the leaders of the SEC seem to be coming back to the pack. Neither Alabama nor Georgia seems unbeatable after the regular season. How close are the Vols to competing with those teams? Not as far as you might think.
The next two months will provide all the insight you need to know about the Vols and that has nothing to do with the bowl game destination or result. Recruiting will be where the Vols fail or succeed.
Tennessee is currently ranked 20th in the nation by 247Sports for the 2020 class. That doesn’t sound bad until one realizes that the Vols are eighth in the SEC. Eeesh.
The Vols can’t compete with the SEC elite if the program is ranked behind South Carolina in recruiting and Mississippi State is nipping at its heels. Changing that course will be far more important than simply winning a bowl game.
So how does Pruitt accomplish that goal? Keep being himself.
The narrative was far too easy when Pruitt was hired. Fulmer hired a first-time head coach so that he was vulnerable for a mutiny. That narrative has changed.
There won’t be a parade down Cumberland Avenue for a 7-5 season. UT’s fans have expectations far higher than that. It’s time to re-think that.
As for overall expectations, UT should compete for championships every year. As for now, being relevant ain’t that bad.