With one game left play in the 2019 regular season, Tennessee sits at six wins. They’ve already clinched a bowl bid and will return to the postseason for the first time since the 2016 season.
Two months ago, fresh off a blowout loss to to Florida — which followed losses to Georgia State and BYU — Tennessee sat at 1-3. A bye week showed improvement against Georgia, but things fell apart in the second half as the Vols fell to 1-4.
Seven weeks later, Tennessee improved to 6-5. If Ed Orgeron wasn’t having a career year in Baton Rouge, you could at least make a case for Jeremy Pruitt being considered for SEC coach of the year.
After the Florida loss on September 21, Tennessee had just a 0.6% chance of a 7+ win season and a 5.6% chance of bowl eligibility, per @ESPN_BillC.— Will Warren (@statsbywill) November 24, 2019
Tennessee is one win away from a 7-5 finish. One of the most astounding turnarounds I’ve seen.
“We knew what we were doing when we took the job,” Jeremy Pruitt said after the Missouri win. “We knew where this program was at. We knew where the men on our staff could take it. Are we where we want to be? Absolutely not. But ok, we’re heading there. We’re getting there as fast as we can.”
When Pruitt took the job, Tennessee had completely bottomed out under Butch Jones. The roster was a total mess. The injury situation was dire. Pruitt had to replace an entire secondary and was tasked with getting the Volunteers back size-wise on both the offensive and defensive fronts.
Both the offense and defense underwent dramatic scheme changes, which created some obvious growing pains. Tennessee simply ran out of steam in year one under Pruitt, who had little to no depth in 2018.
2019 brought some optimism, which was quickly destroyed after just two weeks of play. Things would get worse before they got better as the schedule beefed up, but somehow, someway, Tennessee came out of it.
Did Tennessee’s schedule lighten up? Absolutely. But anyone using that fact as the only reason for Tennessee’s improvement hasn’t been paying attention. It doesn’t take a trained professional to see the development within this roster. The offensive line, quarterback, defensive line, secondary — all of it.
Quarterback Jarrett Guarantano is the perfect example. The fourth year junior couldn’t do anything right in the first month of the season, eventually losing his starting status. But he stayed engaged. He kept working, believing what Jeremy Pruitt told him. Pruitt was adamant that Tennessee would need Guarantano to win later in the year, something that has proven to be more true than even Pruitt could have thought.
Fast forward two months from the moment Guarantano was replaced by Brian Maurer and Guarantano is a completely different player.
Tennessee is seeing dividends from efforts on the recruiting trail — mainly in the trenches. The defensive front seven has really come on to end the season, despite missing a key piece in senior nose tackle Emmit Gooden. Greg Emerson, Kurott Garland, Aubrey Solomon, Darel Middleton and others are becoming difference makers.
Linebackers Daniel Bituli and Henry To’o To’o have been outstanding, playing a boatload of snaps after the Volunteers lost three contributors at the position early in the year.
Wanya Morris, K’Rojhn Calbert, Darnell Wright and Brandon Kennedy are coming into their own up front. Trey Smith is back to playing dominant football, seemingly back to full strength after his second bout with blood clots.
Tennessee is very young, but for the first time in a long time, you’re seeing tangible evidence of development.
“We feel like our program is heading in the right direction,” Pruitt said. “We feel like our guys are bought in. We have a great culture. Our kids love to go to work. Our strength staff, our nutrition staff, everybody that is associated with our program is tied in. We’re all lined up together and we’re excited about the future.”
It’s almost unbelievable that Tennessee has a chance to finish at 7-5 — the mark most people selected for the Volunteers at the beginning of the season. It’s tough to believe that this is the team that lost — scratch that — got physically dominated by Georgia State. It’s weird to think that this is the same Jarrett Guarantano that handed the BYU game away.
Tennessee has gotten back to beating the SEC teams that they’re supposed to beat. Against South Carolina, Kentucky, Missouri and Mississippi State, Tennessee is 4-0 on the year. They have a shot to move to 5-0 in that category with a win over Vanderbilt next weekend.
If Tennessee takes care of business week one and two, the Volunteers would be sitting at 9-3. For now, Tennessee fans will happily take 7-5 with a 5-3 mark in league play.
The next step? Hanging with Florida, Georgia and Alabama. We saw a flash of that against Alabama, but it’s probably going to take a couple more recruiting classes before this program is ready to compete for any sort of title.
But finally, you can see the light at the end of the tunnel in Knoxville.