After three games, we still don’t know who these Vols are
Maybe that 35th time against a top-10 opponent will be the winner for the University of Tennessee football team.
Maybe it will at least go better than the last of its 34 straight attempts to knock off a top-10 foe went on Saturday at No. 3 Georgia, when the No. 14 Volunteers were crushed 44-21 between the Bulldogs’ famed hedges after leading 21-17 at intermission.
Then again, with Alabama quite likely its next possible top-10 opponent, maybe not.
“You need to play games like this to figure out who we are,” said third-year Big Orange boss Jeremy Pruitt early Saturday evening.
And maybe he’s right. But just who are these Vols anyway after three Southeastern Conference games in a schedule that includes seven more league contests? Are they team that played nearly flawless football in victories against South Carolina and Missouri heading into this one?
Or are they the team that committed 10 penalties, turned it over for the first time this season and finished with minus-1 yard rushing against the Bulldogs?
After all, this season was running pretty smoothly prior to Saturday. There were those eight straight wins, which included six victories against SEC foes dating back to last season.
Then again, a closer look at those victories didn’t exactly include the league’s proudest programs. There were those four wins to end last season against, in order, South Carolina, Kentucky, Missouri and Vanderbilt. Then came this season’s early victories at South Carolina and at home against Missouri.
The late, great UT player and coach Johnny Majors used to say, “They always remember what you do in November.”
But did that also mean forgetting what had come before it, when the Vols lost to Florida, Georgia and Alabama by an average score of 37-10?
This isn’t to say that Pruitt and his staff haven’t done fine work to date. Saturday’s reality check aside, UT does seem better on all fronts, from the quality of athlete to the quality of person to both preparation before a game and self-analysis after a game.
As wideout Josh Palmer — who caught two first-half touchdowns — said of Georgia, “They were great on all cylinders. They just took over.”
Added quarterback Jarrett Guarantano after running for his life most of the second half: “Probably the best defense we’ve seen in the SEC in a long, long time. They’re probably the best defense in college football.”
And Georgia just might be. UT should certainly hope Georgia is the best, because if the Bulldogs are much less than that, it could be a long, long season for the Vols going forward.
Then again, Missouri shocked LSU on Saturday — albeit at Mizzou because the game was moved due to Hurricane Delta — and South Carolina crushed COVID-19-battered Vanderbilt, proving the Vols’ earlier wins might be more impressive than previously believed. UT would seem capable of beating everyone else on its schedule save, perhaps, Alabama.
Still, let us return to Saturday’s game and a CBS graphic that appeared in the second half. It told of UT athletic director and former coach Phillip Fulmer — who directed the Vols to their 1998 national championship — telling Pruitt when he hired him in December 2017 that the UT head coach would be judged by how he did against yearly opponents Alabama, Florida and Georgia.
Fair or not, Pruitt is now 0-7 against those foes, and for anyone thinking he might at least close the gap on that trio, Georgia won Saturday’s second half 27-0, which was the Vols’ average margin of defeat a year ago against that threesome.
What might be most discouraging is the offensive line, which was supposed to the team’s overriding strength but wound up with that negative yardage on the ground, at least partly due to five sacks.
So who are these Vols? We still don’t know. But if Saturday be any indicator, they’re still a long, long way from making the Big Orange Nation happy against Alabama, Florida and Georgia.
Georgia running back Kenny McIntosh (6) tries to fend off Tennessee defensive back Bryce Thompson Saturday in Athens, Ga. The Vols led 21-17 at halftime, but the Bulldogs shut them out in the second half, snapping a streak of eight straight wins dating to last fall. The Vols’ skid of losses to top-10 foes reached 35 in a row.