Af­ter three games, we still don’t know who these Vols are

Chattanooga Times Free Press - - PAGE 2 BITS - Con­tact Mark Wied­mer at mwied­mer@times­freep­ress.com.

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.

AP PHOTO/JOHN BAZE­MORE

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.

Mark Wied­mer

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