Two weeks ago, the Vols were coming off a major win over the 11th ranked Kentucky Wildcats. There was no reason to think they couldn’t win at least one of their last two games against Missouri and Vanderbilt to become bowl eligible. The arrow was pointing up.
That all came crashing down to earth after blowout losses to both teams. The Vols were outscored 88-30 over their last two contests and finished the season 5-7 as they limped into the offseason.
Now they are looking for a new offensive coordinator after Tyson Helton has bolted the program to become head coach at Western Kentucky.
But it’s not because he did a stellar job. Helton’s offense was wildly inconsistent and oftentimes below mediocre. There were many, many instances all season long where no one really knew what in the hell the offense was trying to accomplish.
Helton’s one-year legacy features a 121st-ranked offense that was also 110th in scoring at 22.8 points per game. If you want full context, the Vols were actually better on offense in 2017, coming in at 119th in total offense.
It all came to a head against Vanderbilt in the last regular season game. Tennessee was expected to move the ball effectively considering the fact that the Commodores had one of the conference’s worst defenses.
They had given up 29+ points in six of their last seven games. It was a rivalry game that would’ve sent UT bowling with a win.
The end result was 13 points and 238 total yards. 75 of those yards came off of Ty Chandler’s touchdown run.
Tennessee State scored more points against the Commodores when they played earlier in the year. Only Middle Tennessee State and Nevada scored less points than the Vols when they played Vanderbilt.
You can chalk the offensive deficiencies up to a lack of talent and injuries, but at the end of the day there is no room for regression. The whole point of this season was for the team to just get better by the end of the year - not worse.
So how did Helton just fall ass-backward into a head coaching job?
Aside from the previous coaching connections, I think the answer is pretty simple: The Vols are mired in a losing culture that has permeated throughout the entire program.
Rather then stay and try to fix what is wrong, he got the hell out of doge. It was clear during the Vanderbilt game that Pruitt and Helton did not see things the same way when it came to running a SEC offense.
This is Pruitt’s team, there is no doubt about it. This is evidenced by the fact that out of UT’s 20 hard commits for the 2019 class, 13 of them play on the defensive side of the ball. Only four of the offensive commits are 4-star players or higher.
Why would Helton want to return to a toxic program with the same cast of characters that failed him this year? Regardless of the game plan or the available players, nothing improved. Nothing has improved on Rocky Top since 2007 outside of the 2015 season - which was still highlighted by multiple disappointments.
And it’s not just the on-field lack of production. Fans had already begun to make it public that they did not want Helton back in 2019. The longer Helton stuck around, the more likely his name would be next to grace the UT Rock.
So here you have a young offensive coordinator with no previous ties to a toxic program who was already feeling the heat from a fan base that likes to crank it to about 150 degrees when things aren’t going as smoothly as they’d like them to run.
Don’t forget the fact that he also left $2.4 million on the table over the next two years.
This is purely speculation on my end, but it’s easy for me to believe that he blamed his offensive shortcomings on the program itself. UT is an easy out at this point: bad players, bad culture, bad leadership - all factors that someone could viably use to get out of the program.
It was also a very bad hire that has reflected poorly upon Pruitt. How will it affect the next coaching search?
Instead of an offseason centered around improvement, it’s now surrounded by mystery - again. The tape is on repeat and at this point it doesn’t look like anyone is planning on hitting the stop button.