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This Sure Does Feel Like the Same Old Tennessee

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The latest loss to Florida has red flags everywhere.

Tennessee v Florida Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

You have to be some sort of awful to disappoint a fanbase that expected a loss.

Seriously, it’s true. If you just want to take Rocky Top Talk as an objective point of reference, every single one of us thought that Tennessee would lose to Florida. Some of us thought it’d be closer, and others thought it’d be more of a disparity. But we all agreed Florida would win and win by two scores.

A 34-3 loss floored all of us.

Tennessee is exactly what we feared they were. The team that came out on Saturday against the Gators was the same team that lost to Georgia State. The only improvement was in the defense and it is not nearly enough to offset the struggles elsewhere.

There’s issues all over the board. We could spend 2000 words going over all of it, but let’s highlight one of the worst.

The Quarterback Spot

Which part of Jarrett Guarantano’s performance on Saturday was YOUR favorite? When he missed a wide open touchdown with no pressure and all the time in the world? When he threw an interception after staring down the exact corner for the entire play? When he overthrew a 7-yard screen pass? When he delivered a fastball throw inside the 5-yard line?

Admittedly that last play is not totally his fault. But he played exactly like we expected him to. There is no secret playbook that will unleash him. There is no simple trick that will radically improve how he performs. This is who he is, and this who he always will be.

For a quick second, it looked like the coaching staff realized it too.

There was an inkling of hope for Tennessee, and it came in the beginning of the second half. In what seemed like a far-off prayer of the fanbase, Brian Maurer trotted out under center and replaced Jarrett Guarantano. Was this finally the answer?

For a single drive, it looked like it! Maurer helped lead a near 50-yard drive that resulted in the first (and only) points of the game.

But the staff still couldn’t get it right. Instead of operating their regular offense to see how Maurer would lead it, they immediately made him the focal point. A true freshman, in his first collegiate start, against a top-25 defense on the road...and you completely switch the game plan and abandon all attempts at running.

Ty Chandler and Eric Gray had a combined 10 touches heading in to the fourth quarter. Absolutely, completely, totally, unacceptable.

Oh, but they couldn’t just stick to their guns. After Maurer had a bad series, they immediately switched back to Guarantano in hopes that...well, I guess in hopes that he somehow would provide a spark that he has not provided against an FBS opponent in two years.

The quarterback situation is a microcosm of Tennessee football in the Pruitt era. Rough start, a flash of hope, and a deluge of negative.

Staff Issues

When you hire your friends to help coach your team, this is what happens. I saw it happen at Florida State, and I’m seeing it happen right now at Tennessee. When a coach hires based off “familiarity” and ignores better options on the table, the team suffers. There is a reason that Georgia fans were completely fine with Jim Chaney heading to Knoxville. Why do you think that is?

I’ll be completely honest. I spoke positively of Pruitt because everything I heard from people I trust indicated that he had a plan to build a program. When you looked at his recruiting results, along with the flashes of brilliance that the team showed in 2018, you saw what they spoke about. There were going to be bumps in the road and learning experiences—and those are still happening—but in the long run, Tennessee would either tread water or progress.

Now we are looking at a 2-10 season and the team has severely regressed.

I don’t believe that Pruitt’s plan has worked out.

I think he is trying to run a system he does not have the players for, and I think he assumed his friends were better at their jobs than they actually are. I think he recognized what the weaknesses of the team were—but in trying to fix them, he thought he had a few years to do it. In between those years, he thought they’d be average.

They have not been average—the defensive line has zero pass rush to speak of and his margin of error in the secondary is razor thin. At worst, Pruitt probably thought they’d repeat last season. It looks like last season’s team was actually a good bit better.

Can you actually make a change after this year?

If Tennessee goes 1-11 or 2-10, I think you have to fire him. There has never been a majorly successful coach who has reached that level of “bad” in his second season. The first season is whatever, that tends to be a throwaway type of year for many coaches. In every successive year, you need to show some sort of life. If you can show me a coach in the modern era who has ever turned it around after doing that poorly in their second or third year, I would absolutely love to see it.

I’m not naive enough to think there is an easy fix here. Firing one coach does not automatically mean the next coach will succeed.

But being totally honest here? This feels worse than the end of the Butch Jones era. Back then, you knew what the next course of action was. You knew that Butch had been given a fair chance and showed he was not up to the task. You knew that the next year would be rough with a new coach, but everyone agreed that it had to happen.

We’re having a legitimate discussion about the next head coach and Pruitt has not even finished his second season. You can say that the premise is already absurd, but what part of this season has given you any indication that Pruitt is the long term solution? It is unfathomably bad. Nobody expected this.

Until shown differently, this Tennessee team is no different from the Tennessee teams that littered this past decade. It has the same mental toughness, same comical mistakes, same poor leadership.

Scratch that. There is a difference.

It might be worse.