Jeremy Pruitt’s Tennessee program enters Saturday’s trip to Vanderbilt at a bit of a crossroads.
Win and the Volunteers will be going bowling for the first time since 2016’s Music City Bowl win over Nebraska, a young and largely inexperienced roster will get desperately-needed extra practice time that comes with making a bowl game that should greatly benefit the 2019 season and the coaching staff will have further evidence to sell on the recruiting trail that the program is heading in a new direction.
Lose and Vanderbilt will be the one bowling, Tennessee will have its first three-game losing streak to its in-state rival since the 1920s and many fans will regard the season as a failure after the team couldn’t find a way to win one of its final two games necessary to find a way to make the postseason.
Simply put, Vol Nation expects a win over Vanderbilt every season, regardless of the circumstances around the game, and that’s just the way it’s always going to be for most Tennessee fans. At the very least, Pruitt seems to have an understanding of that fact, despite this being his first year on the job in Knoxville.
“This is probably the first time in a long time for me that early on in the season we weren’t participating or playing for playoff implications or a championship in the league,” Pruitt said on Monday. “I said before, this game means a whole lot to a whole lot of people and probably since the Florida loss or the Georgia loss, we’ve been playing for pride. To me, you can talk about winning a championship or whatever, but pride is about as important as it gets.”
Not only do the first-year Tennessee coaches understand and appreciate the importance of the Vanderbilt game and what it means, according to Pruitt, he also senses his players grasp the gravity of this game.
“I think it’s important for our players,” Pruitt continued. “It’s going to be important for our senior class to end with a win against Vanderbilt. I think it’s important for everyone associated with our program to raise our level of play. We’ve had opportunities to do that a couple of times this year and in my opinion, have not necessarily played at our best. That’s on us as coaches to get everybody in our program to be at their best.
“That’s on us as coaches to get everybody in our program to be at their best. It’s a great opportunity for us. It’s a chance to possibly have a winning record and anytime you have positive things going on, I think it’s going to help you in recruiting.”
Those sentiments were followed up by his players during their Monday media availability.
“It is important that we go to a bowl game this year, but we have to focus on this game first and that is where it starts,” Baylen Buchanan said on Monday. “I know it means a lot for the people of Knoxville, Vol Nation, the coaches and our team that we win this game this week. Like I said, I haven’t beaten them, so it means a lot for us to win this week.”
His fellow defensive back, Todd Kelly, echoed those sentiments early in the week.
“I think it’s important. In my case, it’s my last game of the season and we can extend our season a little bit longer if we make a bowl game. Vanderbilt just won this past game so they’re in the same position. It’s a win or go home mentality for both teams, so I think with that being said we’re going to go into this game enthusiastic and excited that we have another opportunity to play on a Saturday.
“We also have to realize that it’s a win or go home mentality. You have to win this ball game in order to extend our season.”
Both programs enter the game at 5-6, one game from ending the season with a .500 record. The Tennessee-Vanderbilt game kicks off at 4 p.m. ET / 3 p.m. CT on Saturday and will air on the SEC Network.