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If Tennessee’s 2021 class falls apart, what’s the point of keeping Jeremy Pruitt for another year?

It’s decision time.

NCAA Football: Tennessee at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

After bringing a ton of momentum into 2020 and adding to it on the recruiting trail during the spring, Jeremy Pruitt’s program has crashed and burned. Tennessee started 2-0 and took a lead into halftime against Georgia, and then everything fell apart.

The Volunteers have dropped five straight games and haven’t even looked competitive against teams that matter in year three under Pruitt.

We didn’t expect to be here. Pruitt’s no-nonsense style seemed to be exactly what this program needed after Butch Jones. His down to earth, country-boy tone fit well with the fanbase and recruits across the southeast.

It seemed like such a fit, in fact, that Tennessee inked Pruitt to an extension just before the season began. Most of us really didn’t have an issue with it. The progress seemed clear enough to bet on Pruitt taking the next step.

As it turns out, that decision has completely backfired in Phillip Fulmer’s face.

Now with a game coming up against No. 6 Florida this weekend, Tennessee is a three-score underdog at home. It was a season where Tennessee was supposed to become competitive with teams like this, instead we’re entering the weekend fully aware of what’s coming — more pain.

That momentum we spoke of in the spring? It’s all long gone. Tennessee went on an absolute tear during that time, essentially inking a full class before we even hit the summer months. We knew a top recruiting ranking would fade in the winter, but Tennessee had assembled a core of blue-chip additions, once again set to boost the talent of this program.

Understandably so, that class now has some cracks in the foundation. Four-star cornerback Damarius McGhee was the first to jump off the boat last week. Five-star linebacker Terrence Lewis followed on Monday night. Both prospects play at big positions of need for Tennessee and probably would find the field quickly in 2021, which makes this all the more alarming.

Just a guess here, but they won’t be alone in their decisions. Again, understandably so — you can feel this ship taking on water.

So what happens when more inevitably follow Lewis and McGhee? What happens when this one-time loaded class turns into a group that’s barely hanging on to a top 30 spot? It’s a realistic scenario, and it begs the question — what happens then if Pruitt is still employed?

Tennessee may or may not play these final three games, potentially giving Pruitt an opportunity to show something on the field. It gives him a chance to toss Harrison Bailey out there and pray he’s an immediate difference maker. It gives him the (unlikely) chance to spring an upset against Florida or Texas A&M, or beat Vanderbilt by 30 and make everyone feel slightly better.

But if he loses this recruiting class, what’s the point of keeping him around for 2021? Outside of money, of course. Tennessee took a $40 million loss after changes to the football season were made due to the pandemic. However, something tells me that if they want to make a change, they can find the money to do so.

Pruitt and his staff’s main appeal is their ability to recruit. He’s pulled in a 10th and a 13th ranked class in the two cycles that he’s had full access to so far in Knoxville. He’s landed a handful of five-star prospects, along with several top 100 guys. Pruitt put even more emphasis on recruiting this offseason by getting younger on staff, adding Jimmy Brumbaugh and Shelton Felton and letting veterans Chris Rumph and Tracy Rocker walk. The returns, at least early on seemed to be great. The returns this fall on the field? Not so much.

So if we have Pruitt pulling a class outside of the top 20 in addition to a two or three win season, why does he deserve another year? Top recruiting classes are vital to any team any team with national title hopes, but they mean nothing if the development isn’t there.

You can blame the pandemic if you want, but everyone is operating with these same challenges. There’s no doubt that it has hindered a young team’s ability to develop, but at the same time, this is year three. There’s still no excuse to be this helpless, particularly at the quarterback position.

And going beyond his team’s performance, Pruitt himself has shown plenty of red flags on the sideline this year. From his refusal to try anything different under center, to multiple clock management debacles to end halves, to the recent mind-numbingly tone deaf press conferences after.

The job suddenly feels too big for Pruitt. And if he’s not going to bring in a top ten class year in and year out, he’s simply not good enough to make up for that deficiency on gameday.