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Holiday wishlist: Tennessee edition

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The holidays are upon us and everyone has something they want.

Jeremy Pruitt is still employed by the University of Tennessee, but the rumors regarding his job status have been flying for over a month. Tennessee has remained quiet on the situation — and they may remain quiet on it for the duration of the offseason. After all, Pruitt’s contract isn’t up (as I’m sure you all know), so no movement on that front would indicate his return to the sideline next season.

Calls for Pruitt’s job have become frequent and fierce on Rocky Top. From Twitter to The Rock on campus, fans have expressed their dissatisfaction with Tennessee’s sideline commander — and for good reason. Pruitt just wrapped up his third year at the helm and the results weren’t promising, to say the least. Even in a COVID year, everyone expected more. His incessant reference to “better execution” became such a common refrain that it’s often cropped up in fans’ post-game mockery for weeks. To many, Pruitt seems in-over his head; he seems ill-equipped to handle head coaching duties in college football — at they very least, that appears to be the case in the SEC.

So, I asked once already: What’s next? There are coaching candidate options should the Volunteers decide to move on from Pruitt. The one I hear most frequently is Hugh Freeze for reasons I’m unable to ascertain. Joe Rexrode from The Athletic nearly implored the athletic department to employ measures which are “anti-Freeze,” as he called it. I have to say I agree with him.

Despite the unclear future of Tennessee’s football program, and with a host of options available should they decide to go the ejection route with Pruitt, one name I haven’t seen crop up as much as it should be is ex-Auburn coach Gus Malzahn.

Malzahn spent eight years at Auburn, commanding a 68-35 record, while making one appearance in a national championship game — a 34-31 loss to Florida State. He also won a title as an assistant in 2010. His worst year at Auburn came in 2015 when his team went 7-6 and won their bowl assignment (Birmingham Bowl). Let me repeat: His worst season at Auburn was a year in which the team finished over .500 and picked up a bowl victory — something that Tennessee fans should be dreaming of right now.

Yet, despite his apparent success — or, success relative to what we see in Knoxville — standards must be a bit higher down at Auburn, where their team has the mighty Alabama Crimson Tide in-state and with whom they’re direct competitors in more ways than just on-field. Meanwhile, Tennessee continues to flounder and is becoming the apparent whipping post in the SEC.

Over the last four years, Tennessee finished under .500 three times, with the exception being 2019 when a group of talented seniors saved the year, thereby earning Pruitt an extension and everyone else to believe maybe he does have what it takes to run a team — all that after beginning the season with losses to Georgia State and a Tennessee-esque finish against BYU. Fast forward a year later and... maybe not.

Auburn parted ways with Malzahn for underachieving; understandable, given their success both in conference and nationally. Auburn’s results are largely in stark contrast to Tennessee’s over the last decade. A common complaint I see from Vols’ Twitter regarding Malzahn are his “underachieving” and “underwhelming” results.

What we have to understand, however, is that if Auburn’s results were being delivered in Neyland, we would think Tennessee was “back” and that it was only a matter of time before they were title contenders year after year. While Malzahn might not be a perfect coach, and while he might not be the guy leading the team for the next two decades, he’s a perfect candidate to push the program in a direction it seems increasingly unable to find its way towards.

All this doesn’t matter if Pruitt’s still the man on the sideline come 2021. If that’s the case, many of us will roll with the punches and wait out another year, many of us fervently complaining on Twitter, I’m sure. The reality is, in my opinion, that it’s unlikely Tennessee moves away from Pruitt before next season begins, barring the chance that the current investigations reveal dealings worthy of termination.

If Pruitt is fired/terminated/bought out (pick your term), then there’s only one choice: Malzahn.