Despite beating two ranked teams and positioning themselves for a bowl game late in the year, the Tennessee Volunteers fell flat on their face in their final two contests of the season. A blowout loss to Missouri and less-blowouty loss to Vanderbilt were two of the most deflating losses in recent history.
The Missouri loss was the better team taking advantage of Tennessee’s weaknesses. The Vanderbilt loss was a team thoroughly unprepared on both sides of the ball, both mentally and physically. Vanderbilt was the better team of course, but they were certainly not 38-13 better.
Getting slapped by four scores like it’s an Abraham Lincoln speech is embarrassing in a way that is hard to describe. Both teams were playing for bowl eligibility. Only one appeared to know it, or care.
For glimpses throughout 2018, it looked like Tennessee had turned a corner. There were a couple of wins or sequences that made it seem like everyone was buying in. Issues remained, but it was accepted that certain players were not going to be in Knoxville past this season. As long as they could finish out the season with a bowl, the offseason process would be less painful.
Those same players quit the second that it became obvious they would have to give 100 percent effort in a must-win game.
So now, Tennessee will stay home for back-to-back years during bowl season. Despite improving from last year.
One thing is for certain: Every single position will be up for grabs in 2019. Even guys like Jarrett Guarantano or Ty Chandler will be forced to compete for their spots. They will obviously have an advantage, but Pruitt will not hand them their starting spot on a silver platter.
A question of scholarships and roster management arises. Tennessee does not lose many seniors, nor will they lose many players to the NFL. Quite frankly, I’m not even sure the CFL will be kind to most of these guys.
Pruitt has been fairly adamant that he will sign 25-26 recruits in the 2019 cycle. After these last two games? It would not surprise me if there were closer to 30 spots open. Pruitt will likely have conversations with some players and encourage them to find another school.
Heck, he might do that with his offensive coordinator.
Most coaches do not commence a purge in the offseason before their first year. There is the expected attrition, but you still need to be able to field a team. Guys who do not fit your system stay around because you simply cannot play without them. Once that first season is over, the roster overturn begins.
We are about to see what exactly Pruitt thinks of both his staff and his roster. We know he is not high on the latter, but how he feels on the former is still up in the air. How deep does this roster purge go?
In the preseason, I went over the lessons that Jeremy Pruitt could learn from Jimbo Fisher. One of those was the lesson of complacency. I wrote:
Changes don’t need to be immediate and all-encompassing. But when the time comes, head coaches have to seriously evaluate their program and figure out where improvements can happen. If your goal is to compete in the SEC or national stage, and you aren’t doing that after three seasons, then it’s time for some introspection. The barometer of success might be altered because of Georgia and Alabama, but it is still a valid concern.
The example I gave of three years was just one version. If it is not working, it is not working. Should Pruitt determine that he made the wrong hire initially, correcting that decision will be the next step.
Most changes will come along the defensive front. Thanks to graduation and roster turnover, there will be a completely new set of faces for the Volunteers in 2019. By my estimations, at least three starting linemen and three starting linebackers will be replaced. That group in particular could not withstand SEC play and could not make the consistent impact needed for a good defense.
Others will come along the offensive front and possibly the receiving corps (should certain players declare for the draft). By the end of the 2019 recruiting cycle, at least 45 players on the team will be personally recruited by Pruitt and his staff. It might be more if he has anything to say about it.
The word about the coaching staff and various members will be coming out soon. It is possible that no one is fired, and Pruitt feels they are necessary for securing the recruiting class itself. Even so, changes are coming. Missing a bowl cannot become the floor for Tennessee. They now have the chance to cut the dead weight and move on in the Pruitt era.