Tennessee is in the middle of a rebuild. Trying to do that in the Southeastern Conference isn’t always pretty. For Jeremy Pruitt in year two in Knoxville, things have been downright ugly at times. But at the midway point, his program is showing signs of life once again.
The Vols were whipped in week one by Georgia State at home — that loss took the air out of the season before it even began. Tennessee followed that game up by outplaying BYU, only to somehow let that one slip away late.
Chattanooga provided a quick breather, but the Vols came crashing back down to earth against Florida. The bye week though — we may look back at that week as a turning point for this group. Jeremy Pruitt made the switch at quarterback to Brian Maurer, benching veteran Jarrett Guarantano.
Maurer responded immediately, sparking Tennessee to a competitive half of football with Georgia. The defense looked more competitive after the break, getting Bryce Thompson back at full strength. A week later, they picked up their first SEC win against Mississippi State.
It was much needed progress that could actually be seen in the win column. Most impressive was how they did it, shutting down one of the better rushing attacks in the conference and winning at the line of scrimmage in the fourth quarter. Tennessee overcame two redzone turnovers by Brian Maurer, along with an injury to Maurer. You can make the argument that Tennessee should have won that game by two or three touchdowns, but simply getting the win was a start.
“You’re always looking to play the perfect game, and we’re nowhere close,” Jeremy Pruitt said on Wednesday. “I feel like we have a high ceiling with some of the guys we’ve got. As we play more games, we gather more experience, so we’ve got to continue to improve. I feel like we’ve improved every game this year. But we’ve got a long ways to go, and we’ve got to continue to work hard every single day to create the right habits so we can improve.”
It’s easy to see the strides they’ve made, and looking back, maybe we should have seen a slow start coming. Injuries to Baylen Buchanan, Emmit Gooden and Daniel Bituli — along with the suspension of Bryce Thompson — set the defense back. Now with two of those pieces back, you’re seeing this group come to life.
Unfortunately for Tennessee, a date with Alabama may put that progress on hold for a week. The nation’s No. 1 team boasts ridiculous offensive talent and numbers. Vegas thinks Tennessee will get beat by five touchdowns on Saturday night in Tuscaloosa, which is tough to argue with after watching the Crimson Tide this so far this season.
“You look at our opponent this week, there’s not a whole lot we can do about them,” Pruitt said. “We’ve got to focus on the things that we can control, and that’s us.”