By Rhiannon Potkey
They’ve been mocked in national headlines, featured in internet memes and listed on nearly every college football Misery Index or Bottom 10 ranking.
It’s not exactly the start the Tennessee Volunteers were hoping for when they kicked off Year 2 under head coach Jeremy Pruitt.
As they enter the bye week following a 34-3 loss to rival Florida last weekend, the Vols (1-3, 0-1 SEC) have already reached a crossroad and crisis of confidence.
Rather than use the week off to get healthy and clean up a few details before hosting third-ranked Georgia on Oct. 5, Tennessee is facing a host of issues that can’t be rectified in a short time span.
The secondary has suffered from major breakdowns in pass coverage, the offensive line is still searching for a consistent rotation and the explosive plays have been few and far between.
About the only unit that has consistently performed well has been the kicking game.
The one sure thing for the Vols was supposed to be at quarterback, but Jarrett Guarantano has played poorly.
The redshirt junior was benched briefly during the loss to Florida in favor of true freshman Brian Maurer. Guarantano finished 10 of 17 for 107 yards and two interceptions. Maurer was 4 of 11 for 44 yards and one interception.
The UT coaches might need to decide whether Maurer is the quarterback of the future and warrants more playing time this season or if Guarantano is still the leader they envisioned as the clear-cut starter.
“I think Jarrett’s got lots of ability to be a really good player, and I’ve said that over and over, but there’s times where you’ve got to take the bull by the horns and say ‘let’s go.’ You’ve got to make some plays,” Pruitt said after the Florida loss. “You’ve got to have an impact on the people around you, so that’s one of the things I’ve been talking to him about. You’ve been around those folks, whether it’s playing sports or in a room or whatever, somebody’s got positive vibes that makes you feel good and gets excited about where you’re at and what you’re doing, so we need a little bit of that.”
Nobody expected the Vols to contend for titles this season, but they did expect to see some progress in the second season under Pruitt.
Pruitt’s pedigree and success as a coordinator were the main reasons he was hired by Tennessee athletic director Phillip Fulmer to take over the program.
The Vols’ multimillion-dollar coaching staff was billed by Pruitt in the preseason as “the best in the country,” but the results already have some questioning the return on the investment.
The ominous tone was set with a stunning loss to Georgia State in the opener followed by surrendering a late lead in a double-overtime loss to BYU. Beating FCS opponent Chattanooga provided a glimmer of optimism before reality set back in by losing to the Gators for the 14th time in the last 15 years.
The Vols likely won’t be favored to win another game until Alabama-Birmingham comes to town Nov. 2.
With no easy solutions or quick fixes on the horizon, how much patience is required before a major change is made?
Pruitt inherited a downtrodden program reeling from the historical lows reached by Butch Jones in his final two seasons.
But in a quick-fix, instant-gratification world, the grace period for a rebuild is more compressed, especially at a school with the resources and tradition of Tennessee.
Has Pruitt been given enough time to change the culture, recruit his own players and develop talent? Can the Vols afford to keep cycling through coaches and expect different results?
If Tennessee pulls the plug too early, the Vols could miss out on a chance to stabilize the program and allow Pruitt to grow into a title-worthy leader.
But if Tennessee stays the course and the results don’t change, the Vols risk angering an already apathetic fan base frustrated by years of missteps and false hope.
The recent speculation by some national media members is that Fulmer will fire Pruitt this season and return as the head coach of the program.
That notion has been dismissed by ESPN’s Paul Finebaum, a UT graduate.
“Just an opinion, but I do not believe that Phil Fulmer wants to be the coach at Tennessee,” Finebaum said during his regular appearance this week on ‘The Roundtable’ on JOX 94.5 in Birmingham. “He hears it, and maybe there’s always that itch, but I think it’s been, what, 11 years now, and I think Phillip is determined to right that ship from an administrative standpoint.
“He has goodwill. He is popular in Knoxville and would he like the adulation of being a coach? I mean everyone likes that. But I think he’s smart enough to know that is the wrong road to go down.”
Given their poor start, the Vols will need to find a new way to measure success for the remainder of the season. The idea of getting five wins in their final eight games to become bowl eligible is a long shot.
But signs of progress, however that is judged, is what’s needed most on Rocky Top right now.
“As a team, we just have to come back together,” redshirt senior center Brandon Kennedy said. “This bye week is going to be very important for us to actually look at the mistakes and correct them going into the next game.”