I’m optimistic about Jeremy Pruitt’s future in Knoxville. You should be, too.

His hires, his recruiting, his press conferences and at least some of his game-planning were all breaths of fresh air in Year 1 on Rocky Top.

That doesn’t mean I’m going Lane Kiffin and predicting Tennessee will be competing for a Playoff spot in Year 2, nor am I suggesting that the Vols are primed to take down Georgia at Neyland Stadium and get the “we’re back” moment of 2019.

It’s still too early in the Jeremy Pruitt era for me to predict that either of those things will happen. I mean, we’re talking about someone with a year of head coaching experience. A year in which he won 5 games and ended the season by getting smacked by Vanderbilt.

But there’s something that I think needs to be remembered as I see all of these preseason predictions with the Vols. And actually, it’s something that Tennessee fans were reminded of in 2018.

Try to look beyond the win-loss record.

Wait, what? Why should fans not get caught up in the only metric that coaches are ultimately judged by?

Let me explain that with the caveat that I’m assuming we’re talking about the Vols hitting the 6-win mark. That’s the absolute floor for this team, and while I understand that would be deemed a disappointment for many, there are plenty of scenarios in which major improvement is evident. Having said that, a repeat of 5 wins absolutely would be worth scrutinizing, considering how favorable Tennessee’s schedule is with a team that returns more of its production than any Power 5 team in America.

(I’ve gone on record saying that if there was one Power 5 team I was betting on to improve its win total, it would be Tennessee. But upon further review, 4-win Nebraska and 2-win UNC might have a case to be made for that.)

Here’s what I am saying.

Let’s say you set the bar at 8 wins for Tennessee this year. As in, 8 wins would constitute a success for Year 2 of the Pruitt era. I’m not saying that’s wrong, but I am saying that there’s a perfectly realistic scenario in which the Vols do get 8 wins but one or more of the following things happen:

  • Get dominated by Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Mizzou in losses
  • Offensive line is still an obvious weakness
  • Group of 5 teams hang around for far too long
  • SEC wins are 1-possession games decided in fourth quarter

It wouldn’t be that far-fetched to see that scenario play out … in an 8-win season. And if that were to happen, some wouldn’t look past the 8 wins and deem that regardless of those 4 key bullet points, everything is still heading in the right direction.

I’m not even saying that a season like that would be a failure. I am saying that a season like that could be a bit of a mirage.

Credit: Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

All that would do would be to inflate expectations heading into Year 3 of the Pruitt era. Obviously Pruitt would understand that. He’s not the concern here. He’s the last person on Earth who would prop the Vols up before they’re worthy.

If you need an example of why new coaches can have mirage seasons in Year 2, look at Florida with Jim McElwain. Better yet, look at 2016 Nebraska. Tennessee fans should be familiar with that group. The two teams met in the Music City Bowl, where a decimated Nebraska squad couldn’t slow down the Vols. That Nebraska team came into the season with sky high turnaround expectations after a 5-win regular season to start the Mike Riley era. The Huskers had loads of experience returning and the schedule set up really well in Year 2 of a new coach.

Sound familiar?

Nebraska actually improved its regular season win total by 4. On the surface, going from 5 to 9 wins in Year 2 was a sign of progress.

But dig a little deeper and you would have seen that while 2016 Nebraska won its first 5 games against Power 5 teams, all of them were decided by 2 scores were fewer. Those 5 teams went on to win an average of 4.6 games that year (none won more than 6 in the regular season). In their 3 most important games (at Wisconsin, at Ohio State and at Iowa), the Huskers were outscored by an average of 32 points. The defense was exposed by offenses that had a clue and Nebraska’s offense couldn’t impose its will against Power 5 competition.

What happened the following year? Nebraska won 4 games with significant roster turnover and a more challenging schedule. Ultimately, Riley lost his job.

Do I think Pruitt is much more capable of righting the ship than Riley? Of course. If Pruitt is losing to MAC schools at home in Year 3, he won’t have a key to get back into the stadium the following day. You can knock me over with a feather if that happens.

But my point is that it’s so easy to point to a specific number of wins with a relatively new coach to measure success. As long as the Vols get to 6 wins in the regular season, I’ll measure success in several more ways than what Pruitt’s 2019 win total is. And I say that because expectations aren’t division title or bust. This is the perfect time to look past the win-loss record.

I want to see how Tennessee’s offensive line keeps Jarrett Guarantano upright against Florida. I want to see how Pruitt delivers on his promise to make sure he doesn’t have a repeat of the 2018 first half against Alabama. I want to see how Tennessee’s pass rush gets pressure on Jake Fromm against Georgia’s loaded offensive line.

And while they’re extremely important, it’s not just the headliner games that should determine how successful 2019 is for Pruitt.

I want to see Jim Chaney scheme up plays that carve up Group of 5 defenses in a way that makes Tennessee fans walk out of Neyland Stadium with excitement instead of angst. I want to see efforts like last year against Auburn and Kentucky that don’t feel like off-the-radar upsets. I want to see Tennessee beat consecutive Power 5 teams for the first time since 2016.

Shoot, I just want to see Tennessee not get taken to the woodshed by Vandy.

Accomplishing those things would be signs that it’s not just a favorable schedule or a roster loaded with returning production that the Vols are benefitting from. There’s no perfect way to measure that. At times in 2019, it could be tough differentiate favorable circumstances and legitimate year-to-year improvement.

But just remember to analyze more than the win column. There are going to be better barometers for the Pruitt era.

You just have to look for them.