You want a perfect opportunity to win some support, Jeremy Pruitt? Saturday is it
Nobody in their right mind is picking Tennessee to go into Gainesville and win Saturday.
Why should they? The Vols are 1-2 despite the fact that they haven’t left Knoxville or played a Power 5 team. They haven’t been to a bowl game since 2016, either. And just in case that wasn’t enough, the Vols have lost 13 of their past 14 games to the Gators.
Picking Tennessee to roll into The Swamp and win as a double-digit dog would be foolish for those reasons alone, before the whole “Florida is a top 10 team” thing is mentioned. Oh, and the whole “Florida destroyed Tennessee in Knoxville last year” thing should probably be mentioned, too.
What a perfect opportunity for Jeremy Pruitt to stomp all over that.
It’s no secret that the Tennessee coach didn’t exactly gain supporters in Knoxville by losing as a 28-point favorite to a 2-win Sun Belt team. It didn’t help his cause when the Vols combusted in the final 30 seconds the following week against BYU to allow a game-tying field goal that eventually led to an overtime loss.
These days, saying “Pruitt is losing support in a hurry” would be like saying “people like rooting for Jalen Hurts.” Duh. Tell me something I don’t know.
And if you were under a rock in September — something I wouldn’t fault a Tennessee fan for — perhaps you missed headlines like this:
Tennessee is 0-2 this season, 5-9 in the Jeremy Pruitt era, and the schedule gets much tougher from here.
So, what’s Pruitt’s contract situation?https://t.co/CSYrBNgGDL
— Zach Barnett (@zach_barnett) September 11, 2019
(His buyout is just north of $9 million this year, in case you were wondering.)
Due to that waining support, Pruitt can win a game that many believe his team has no chance in. While I’m not necessarily predicting a Tennessee upset, there are at least a few things working in their favor that are somewhat atypical for facing a top 10 team on the road.
Let’s start with the obvious. As well as Kyle Trask played in the 4th quarter at Kentucky, he hasn’t started a game since his freshman year of high school. That’s not to say he’ll be bad, but in limited live reps, it wouldn’t be far-fetched if he struggled to pick up blitzes or if he made a costly wrong read or two.
The other big question mark with the Gators is the offensive line play. They rank No. 92 in rushing, which would have been much worse if not for Josh Hammond’s 76-yard end around touchdown in the final minute against Kentucky.
It’s because of those ground game issues with an inexperienced offensive line that Florida might struggle to put away Power 5 teams. And if that puts pressure on Trask to make key conversions late, that’s what Tennessee wants. As talented as the Gators are on the outside, at least Pruitt doesn’t have to game plan for the ever-dangerous Kadarius Toney, who will miss Saturday’s game.
Tennessee could also benefit from a pair of key injuries on the other side of the ball. C.J. Henderson and Jabari Zuniga, arguably Florida’s best 2 players overall, are both questionable with ankle injuries. Even if they play, they could have a snap count. No matter how you slice it up, that would benefit Tennessee.
Starting to see what I’m getting at here? On paper, Tennessee is entering a matchup on the road against a top 10 team that’s had its number for most of the 21st century. It’s also a Florida team that needed late go-ahead touchdowns to win its only Power 5 matchups of the year. And for what it’s worth, the Gators trailed in the 4th quarter in 6 of their 7 SEC East matchups during the Dan Mullen era so far.
When was the one time they didn’t? Tennessee last year, of course.
And yes, I know. While Florida had to rally against a pair of Power 5 teams late, Tennessee hasn’t even played a Power 5 team and it sits at 1-2.
But with all due respect to Florida for the way it battled back against a better-than-they-get-credit-for Kentucky team, is there a top 10 team you’d rather face this weekend?
I wouldn’t want to roll into Baton Rouge and have to face that LSU offense. I sure as heck wouldn’t want to have to deal with the Georgia offensive line for 60 minutes, either. And game-planning for Chase Young and that Ohio State defense doesn’t seem like a task I’d want to take up.
The point is, for a coach desperately in need of a perspective-changing win, Pruitt has a much more realistic chance of getting it against Florida than one of those other teams. And even if Tennessee can’t pull off the upset and simply keeps it close to the end — something I wouldn’t rule out — perhaps that’ll begin to convince a jaded fan base that he can right the ship.
I ultimately don’t know what the future holds for Pruitt. As much as I like his off-field approach compared to say, Butch Jones, this is still a results-based business. Because of this gauntlet start to SEC play, Pruitt’s team could easily be 1-7 and eliminated from bowl eligibility in the last weekend of October. That’d be a Neyland-sized pill to swallow heading into what would be a pressure-packed offseason (assuming he still he had a job).
That’s the reality that Pruitt is facing if he can’t figure things out, and fast. The only benefit of this woeful start? He set such a low bar for himself that suddenly winning one of these games would drastically change his perception.
That starts this Saturday in Gainesville.