The 2019 Tennessee Volunteers football program enters the second season of Jeremy Pruitt’s tenure hoping to improve on last year’s 5-7 record both straight up and against the spread. Most books have set UT’s season win total at 6.5 games, with 5Dimes listing the ‘over’ at a -140 price.
Tennessee returns 10 starters on offense and six on defense. However, one of those defensive starters, senior nicklebacker Baylen Buchannan, was diagnosed with a “narrowing of his spine” in mid-August. The good news is that the diagnosis came before any significant injury, but the bad news is that he’s out indefinitely and is likely looking at taking a redshirt.
Buchannan was UT’s third-leading returning tackler in 2018, recording 49 tackles, four passes broken up and three tackles for loss. Another starter, sophomore CB Bryce Thompson, was suspended several days ago after allegations of a domestic incident emerged. Thompson started 10 games as a true freshman last year, contributing 34 tackles, seven PBU, three interceptions, three TFL’s, one sack and one QB hurry.
Furthermore, senior nose guard Emmit Gooden is out for the year with a knee injury. Gooden only started one game last season, but he produced 33 tackles, a team-best six TFL’s and one sack.
Pruitt walked into a mess. After back-to-back 9-4 campaigns in 2015 and ’16, Butch Jones’s squad went winless in eight SEC games and finished 4-8 SU and 2-10 ATS in ’17. This earned him a pink slip and prompted one of the oddest coaching searches in SEC football history.
The Athletic Director at the time, John Currie, clearly had zero feel for the culture of his fan base. He tried to hire former Rutgers head coach Greg Schiano, only to have those efforts essentially vetoed by his bosses after a fan revolt.
This unprecedented reaction preceded more embarrassment for both Currie and UT, as it became a national laughingstock when Purdue’s Jeff Brohm and North Carolina State’s Dave Doeren turned down Currie’s overtures.
Just when Currie finally appeared poised to make a solid decision and hire Washington State’s Mike Leach, he was ordered back to Knoxville and relieved of his duties. The University named former head football coach Phil Fulmer as the AD to replace Currie, and Fulmer ended up hiring Pruitt, a long-time defensive coordinator at Alabama, Florida State and Georgia.
**Vandy ends miserable Year 1 for Pruitt**
Tennessee took six beatdowns by margins of at least 25 points last year, including losses vs. West Virginia (40-14), vs. Florida (47-21), at Georgia (38-12), vs. Alabama (58-21), vs. Missouri (50-17) and at Vanderbilt (38-13). The loss to Vandy, the third straight such defeat by a double-digit margin against the Commodores, denied the Vols a bowl berth.
There were two quality wins. Tennessee went to Auburn and won a 30-24 decision as a 14.5-point road underdog over the nation’s No. 21 ranked team. As a five-point home underdog versus 12th-ranked Kentucky, the Vols captured a 24-7 triumph.
The win over UK was UT’s fifth, setting up two chances to earn bowl eligibility vs. Mizzou and at Vandy. Yeah, that didn’t go too well.
The state of the Tennessee football program has been nothing short of an unmitigated disaster since the ill-advised decision to part ways with Fulmer after the 2008 campaign. During Fulmer’s 17-year tenure, the Vols went 151-52-1 for a 74.3 winning percentage. They were in the AP’s Top 25 preseason rankings every single year.
Since then, however, Tennessee has been ranked in the preseason only three times in 11 years. In two of those instances, the Vols were No. 25.
Fulmer won at least eight games in 15 of 17 seasons. He posted double-digit win totals eight times, winning 11 games or more four times, including the 1998 national title. In the 10 seasons since Fulmer’s departure, Tennessee has endured six losing seasons and finished 7-6 twice.
The two nine-win seasons under Jones represent the best of UT football in the last decade and, if we’re being honest, we all know that 2015 and ’16 was the ‘Dark Ages Era’ of SEC East football when Florida twice made it to Atlanta with teams that averaged 23.2 and 23.9 points per game.
The coaches since Fulmer have been Lane Kiffin, Derek Dooley, Butch Jones and now Pruitt. Kiffin now coaches in Conference USA, Dooley spent several seasons as the WRs coach for the Dallas Cowboys and is now Missouri’s offensive coordinator (who hung a 50-spot at Neyland last year!), and Jones is an “offensive analyst” for Alabama.
The AD hires have been equally as bad, if not worse. Mike Hamilton hired Kiffin, who bolted for Southern Cal after one season, then hired Dooley and oversaw Bruce Pearl’s actions that got the basketball program placed on probation.
Next? Oh, that would be Dave Hart, who was hired as AD at FSU during Bobby Bowden’s tenure because he was a “basketball guy.” Hart’s hoops savvy led him to hire Steve Robinson for the Seminoles.
It was one of the worst hires in ACC basketball history. Robinson, who went 64-86 overall and 25-55 in conference play at FSU, has never been a head coach again.
Hart mishandled a rape allegation during his tenure at FSU and while at UT, six former female students filed a lawsuit against the University claiming that top athletic officials, including Hart, helped foster an environment that allowed male student-athletes to sexually assault and harass women without being punished. UT settled the lawsuit out of court for $2.4 million. Two other lawsuits brought against Hart and other UT officials resulted in out-of-court settlements for $750,000 and $320,000.
Hart fired Dooley and then hired Jones. He also hired Donnie Tyndall, who was only on campus to lead the basketball program for about 11 months before getting canned. You see, Hart really did his homework on Tyndall, who committed so many NCAA violations during his previous tenure at Southern Miss that he was issued a 10-year show-cause penalty.
After the atrocious mismanagement of the entire athletics program by Hamilton and Hart, UT went out and hired Currie. While at Kansas St., Currie ran Frank Martin out of town. Martin was beloved at Kansas State, taking it to an Elite Eight and has since led South Carolina to the Final Four.
**What’s coming in Year 2 under Pruitt?**
Tennessee returns every notable skill player on offense, but this unit produced merely 22.8 PPG in 2018. The offensive woes can’t be blamed on junior QB Jarrett Guarantano, who completed 62.2 percent of his passes for 1,907 yards with a 12/3 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
I like the Vols’ WRs, including Marquez Callaway, Josh Palmer and Jauan Jennings, a veteran trio that has 57 combined starts between them. Ty Chandler (5.5 YPC) and Tim Jordan (4.0 YPC) figure to carry most of the rushing load, although true freshman Eric Gray might be a factor.
The offensive line might start a pair of true freshmen at the offensive tackle spots. That’s usually a major source of concern and might be in this instance, too, but we should certainly note that Darnell Wright and Wanya Morris were both five-star recruits.
Senior DE Darrell Taylor is the star of the defense. He is a preseason first-team All-SEC selection and fourth-team All-American in Phil Steele’s magazine. Taylor produced 36 tackles, eight sacks, three TFL’s, three force fumbles and three QB hurries last year. He has 11 career sacks and five forced fumbles.
Thompson appeared poised for a monster season, but his status is now up in the air. UT does have its two top tacklers back in senior safety Nigel Warrior and senior LB Daniel Bituli, who had 79 tackles and 5.5 TFL’s in ’18. Warrior was the Vols’ second-leading tackler with 64 stops.
Tennessee opens with three home games and we can go ahead and mark it down for at least two wins over Georgia State and Chattanooga. Sportsbook has the Vols as 3.5-point favorites (at a -125 price tag) for their Week 2 showdown with BYU.
Pruitt’s squad is facing three games as double-digit underdogs, according to Games of the Year lines at various betting outlets. Most spots have UT as a 16.5-point road underdog at Florida, a 17.5-point home ‘dog vs. Georgia and a 28.5-point road puppy at Alabama.
Other Games of the Year numbers have Tennessee as a pick ‘em at home vs. South Carolina and as a seven-point home favorite to Vandy.
The non-conference slate consists of four home games vs. Georgia State, BYU, Chattanooga and UAB. The games against the SEC West are vs. Mississippi State and at Alabama.
Tennessee faces three tough situational spots when opponents get two weeks to prepare for the Vols, who are in action the previous weekend. Mississippi State comes to Knoxville fresh on Oct. 12 when UT is off a home game vs. UGA.
UAB visits Neyland off an open date when the Vols face the Gamecocks the prior Saturday. When Tennessee travels to Lexington on Nov. 9, it will be playing for the sixth time in six weeks. On the flip side, UK will have the revenge angle, an extra week to get healthy and more time to stew over last year’s piss-poor showing in Knoxville.
Tennessee will be in the favorable position when it plays at Missouri on Nov. 23. The Tigers will be coming off key SEC East battles at UGA (11/9) and vs. Florida (11/16), while the Vols get two weeks to prepare. Mizzou has taken UT behind the woodshed for a pair of 50-17 beatdowns in consecutive seasons, defeating the closing lines by 48 combined points.
I initially marked Tennessee with four wins, four losses and four swing games. The swing games were vs. Mississippi State, vs. South Carolina, at Kentucky and vs. Vanderbilt.
As noted, MSU and UK get an open date before taking on UT. One would think the Vols could be physically beat up after games against Georgia and Alabama, right? The Gamecocks catch UT the week after it goes to Tuscaloosa.
I just don’t see the Vols going 3-1 in their swing games. If there’s a game to be stolen from the eight I marked as 4-4, the chances might be better for BYU to win at Neyland than for UT to steal one at Missouri.
I lean ‘under’ on UT’s season win total, especially if you can get a +120 payout. The Vols might go bowling, but they won’t win seven games in the regular season.
**B.E.’s Bonus Nuggets**
–Tennessee owns an abysmal 2-15 record in its last 17 games against Power Five opponents.
–Tennessee finished ’18 minus one in turnover margin and -623 in total yards.
–The Vols are 0-7 against Will Muschamp during his tenures at Florida and South Carolina.
–Since losing at UCLA in the 2008 season opener, UT has spent only 15 weeks ranked in the Top 25. Eight of those 15 weeks came at the start of the 2016 season.
–UT’s season-opening loss to West Virginia last year snapped a streak of nine straight wins in openers.
–Tennessee is 1-15 in its past 16 games against the SEC West. In fairness, a good chunk of those defeats were against the Crimson Tide during Nick Saban’s dynastic tenure.