Tennessee has taken full advantage of their two easiest games on the schedule in ETSU and UTEP, winning by a combined 83-3 over the past couple of Saturdays. It hasn’t always been pretty (head coach Jeremy Pruitt would certainly agree) but the Volunteers have rebounded well after a 40-14 blowout loss in the season opener.
Since UTEP was a uniquely weak opponent, only small crumbs can be gained from what we saw on the field. Still, through three contests, it’s obvious what parts of the team will be strong from here on out and which will be exposed in SEC play.
Every team has to worry about mental mistakes, but teams with entirely new staffs are more prone to them. The Volunteers looked like they had bucked this trend after the first two games, where they committed zero turnovers and only nine penalties combined.
UTEP was a jarring reminder that Tennessee is still a work in progress. Two turnovers and eight penalties for 65 yards proved to be momentum killers, and led to the ugly 24-0 tally in the box score. Tennessee’s offense did fine moving the ball, considering they gained 512 yards and averaged over 7.0 yards per play. But a goal line fumble and penalties in the red zone turned them into their own worst enemy. Realistically the game was not as close as the final score indicated.
There’s going to be more of those mental mistakes as the season goes on. This team will face high-pressure situations and be adding wrinkles to both sides of the ball. It’s inevitable that they won’t bat 1.000 the rest of the way. The real question is if they can limit them to a reasonable amount.
Defensive Line Depth
The pass rush from the defensive line is still not where it needs to be. That being said, Tennessee has looked capable in stopping the run and has enough solid players up front to maintain a good rotation. Emmit Gooden and Paul Bain is particular are two guys who have already made an impact on the depth chart. Gooden was a JUCO recruit that Pruitt has spoken highly of in recent weeks, while Bain is a former walk-on that earned a scholarship for his effort/play.
The defensive line still isn’t a “strength” but it looks better than it did against West Virginia. Will that transfer over to the Florida game? Only time will tell.
It’s fair to say that no one was happy with the sloppy play against UTEP. A 24-0 final score should’ve been almost double that, but instead Tennessee turned in a subpar performance.
Pruitt knew it too. His postgame press conference almost sounded like a loss, as he chastised most of the position groups and insisted that the team could play much better. It won’t soothe any worries of the Volunteer fanbase, but it’s crucial that Pruitt implements his standards early. He’s installing a complete culture change and everything from his reactions to his analysis will be different.
To clarify, I don’t think any one method is superior to others. Plenty of coaches have won at a high level without the Nick Saban approach. What’s important is consistency—your standards need to be very clear from the beginning and they need to apply to everyone. This is where coaches have strayed from in the past, and their programs faltered because of it.
This couldn’t be said after West Virginia. If you’ll remember, both running back Ty Chandler and starting center Brandon Kennedy were two of the reported injuries (though Kennedy’s was more serious). Kennedy’s injury was announced on the following Tuesday, while Chandler was taken out of the WVU game early on. Would this be another season of lost potential?
Not yet at least. Kennedy’s injury still hurts, but Chandler returned on Saturday and appeared completely fine. Meanwhile, basically no other players (starters or backups) have suffered major injuries.
Injuries are largely unpredictable, so this could change after just one game. Still, if you have this much luck heading in to one of the most important games of the year, it can only register as a positive.
Think about it: at least you’re not FSU. They are one more offensive line injury away from playing a walk-on.