If Saturday’s game against Florida was indeed Tennessee’s best chance to pick up an SEC win in 2018, the outlook for the remainder of the season isn’t promising, to say the least.
In a battle of two teams many believe to be at the bottom of the SEC East, the Gators imposed their will on the Vols, dominating both sides of the line of scrimmage en route to a 47-21 win at Neyland Stadium.
A near-capacity crowd of more than 100,000 was loud early, but was quickly taken out of the game as turnovers on UT’s first two possessions led to a 14-0 Florida lead. Throw in a safety and a touchdown on a busted play just moments later, and the Gators were up 23-3.
Tennessee’s one chance to get back into it found Austin Pope wide open on fourth down. The tight end streaked down the sideline and appeared to set up a touchdown, but he reached the ball out for the goal line and fumbled it through the end zone.
Down 26-3 at halftime, the Vols fumbled the second half kickoff. Florida scored one play later, and the mass exodus from Neyland Stadium began.
It wasn’t the first time in recent years that fans have left Neyland unhappy, watching their team fail to live up to expectations against Florida. But this time was different. With a daunting four-game stretch ahead that includes trips to No. 2 Georgia and No. 9 Auburn before returning home to host No. 1 Alabama and then visiting South Carolina, there was real reason to think that beating Florida was UT’s best chance of getting to six wins and bowl eligibility . . . maybe even the Vols’ best chance to beat an SEC team.
That didn’t happen, and UT’s conference losing streak is now at a school-record 10 games, dating back to November 19, 2016. After never going an entire season without an SEC win until last year, the Vols are now looking at doing it two years in a row. After having never lost eight games in a season until last year, the Vols are now staring a nine-loss season straight in the face, unless they can find a way to spring a November upset against one of their remaining SEC East foes.
Meanwhile, fans are left with an uncomfortable question: If Florida, supposedly the next-to-worst team in the SEC, is four touchdowns better than Tennessee, just how much better are the second-ranked Bulldogs, the ninth-ranked Tigers, the top-ranked Crimson Tide?
That question will begin to be answered this weekend, when Tennessee visits Athens for a 3:30 p.m. start (CBS), but this much is clear: it’s likely to be an ugly answer.
First-year head coach Jeremy Pruitt, so calm and collected during Tennessee’s season-opening loss to West Virginia in Charlotte and the back-to-back cupcake wins that followed, began to show signs of the pressure he’s under to right the ship on Saturday night. TV cameras caught him kicking a white board on the sideline in a fit of rage. Later, he picked up an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty after going onto the field to rant at officials who didn’t call a pass interference penalty on a Florida interception — the Vols’ sixth turnover of a very long night.
The faithful who paid $95 per ticket (face value) to see one of the most disappointing losses most can remember at Neyland Stadium are starting to realize what Pruitt has likely long known: Righting that ship is only going to happen with a mass cleansing — a culture change that will be brought about with time and recruiting.
Will Pruitt have time? Likely. No university administration in their right minds would fire a coach after a single season or even two, no matter how bad their team is getting beat each Saturday. And as long as Phillip Fulmer is at the helm of the athletics department, it’s even less likely to happen; he’s loyal to a fault, which is part of the reason he was unceremoniously canned in 2008 — he was too reluctant to can his assistants who weren’t pulling their weight.
Will Pruitt recruit? That’s a little more shaky. For now, Tennessee’s 2019 recruiting class is ranked No. 9 in the nation, according to Rivals. It’s a solid class that includes a couple of offensive linemen who could start immediately next season, helping to solve the Vols’ largest problem area. Among them is 5-star offensive tackle Wanya Morris, ranked as the second-best OT in the nation and the country’s No. 16 prep prospect overall. Morris tweeted after Saturday’s game that he’s firm in his commitment to Tennessee.
But as the losses mount, especially if they’re as lopsided as they’re likely to be, and as the so-called “noise in the system” grows louder, can Pruitt and his staff hold on to those recruits?
They have to, really. Because Pruitt’s system is much different from Butch Jones’ system. Jones attempted to build a finesse program, departing from the SEC norm of power. Pruitt, who learned under Alabama’s Nick Saban, is trying to return to that Crimson Tide model of power-based football. Trying to make Jones’ players fit Pruitt’s system is like trying to fit the proverbial square pegs in round holes.
So it’s going to take patience. And time. And as Saturday’s loss to Florida showed, it isn’t likely to be a pretty process.