Here we continue our weekly look at a different opponent for the 2018 football season. Today you get to check out the new-look Tennessee Volunteers, Auburn’s 7th opponent this coming fall.
It’s no secret that Tennessee has had a bit of trouble in recent years, mainly since the departure of Phil Fulmer from the sidelines after the 2008 season. That was a year of change around the SEC, and while other schools have rebounded from sub-par seasons (us, most notably), the Vols have been stuck in the mud for a decade and are on their fourth coach since Fulmer in trying to find the magic once again.
From 1992-2008, Tennessee was one of the biggies in the SEC. Throughout the 90s, it was Florida and Tennessee dominating the East Division. It took a decade for someone other than one of those two schools to represent the East in the SEC Championship Game! Once Fulmer got momentum and started playing fairly even with the Gators, he went 9-1 against Alabama from 1995-2004, 6-4 against Georgia in that time frame, and played pretty even with Florida, going 4-6 in those ten years. The big thing that he avoided as well was not losing to the so-called inferior teams on the schedule. In his seventeen seasons, Fulmer went 33-1 against Kentucky and Vanderbilt, with the lone loss coming to the Commodores when Jay Cutler was quarterback.
Compare that to the current era. In the decade since Fulmer left, Tennessee has been abysmal against the SEC.
0-9 vs Alabama, with an eleven-game losing streak overall.
1-8 vs Florida.
3-6 vs Georgia.
4-5 vs South Carolina.
5-4 vs Vanderbilt.
And while we haven’t played them that much in that time frame, they’re 0-2 against Auburn, and haven’t beaten the Tigers since 1999. That’s a six-game losing streak on top of everything else.
They’ve gone through Lane Kiffin, Derek Dooley, and Butch Jones. There were moments of promise -- Kiffin’s team looked good at times in 2009, recruited well, and nearly knocked off Alabama before Lane bolted for the West Coast. Dooley was left with a bare cupboard but had the orange pants, and then Butch put together what looked like a promising 2016 until luck ran out for the Vols. They finally beat Florida and knocked off Georgia with a Hail Mary, but fell apart down the stretch.
So, fourth time’s the charm. And what did Tennessee decide to do? Well, after a wacky coaching search that led to very public outrage by the Volunteer faithful when Greg Schiano’s name was leaked, they finally hired Jeremy Pruitt away from Alabama.
The man may not know his greens, but I’ll concede his knowledge of defensive football. He’s pretty good on that side of the ball. Still, he’ll have one giant heap to get his arms around to try and mold into a winning football team in Knoxville.
Pruitt’s going to try to bring in the Alabama Nick Saban mindset and turn Tennessee into Tide Light. The first recruiting class under Pruitt was ranked in the bottom half of the SEC, which is still in the top 20 or so nationally, but that’s not going to cut it when you’re trying to play the type of football that Bama plays. I’m pretty confident that the Vols will play tough football, but won’t have the horses in several games. Once they get another couple of good full recruiting classes in, they can start to make noise, but it likely won’t be this year. The main problem will be the restlessness that Knoxvillians have had to endure over the past decade, and how well they’ll take what could very well be another tough season.
Before we look at the pieces that Pruitt has to play with, let’s glance at the staff. Pruitt got some relatively unproven but talented guys to coach with him, including Tyson Helton as offensive coordinator. Helton spent the last two seasons working with quarterbacks and coordinating the passing game at USC, meaning his favorite toy of late has been Sam Darnold. On the other side, Kevin Sherrer came on board from Georgia to coach the defense. Sherrer was the linebackers coach in Athens for the past four seasons, and definitely got to work with some special talents. However, this will be the first season for both guys as the primary coordinators on their respective sides of the ball.
You may recognize some of the other names on the staff — Tracy Rocker’s along to coach the defensive line, and Chris Weinke will be in charge of the running backs. Rocker’s resume speaks for itself, and Weinke could provide a solid boost on the recruiting trail after he spent five seasons as the head coach at IMG Academy recently.
So, Pruitt put together a talented staff, but they’ve got a problem that might be more daunting than the lack of talent in Knoxville. Have you seen their schedule?
That’s rough. Really rough. The opener against WVU is at a neutral site, and the Mountaineers are supposed to be dynamite with Will Grier back at quarterback. The next two cupcakes at home will get the Vols into a groove, but then it’s Florida, at Georgia, at Auburn, Alabama, and at South Carolina. There’s a highly-likely possibility that Tennessee wins zero of those games. It’s unfortunate that in Pruitt’s first year, his crossovers are the top two teams from the West in 2017. Tennessee’s bowl eligibility will likely hinge on the final three games against Kentucky, Missouri, and Vanderbilt.
With the schedule standing in the way, what does Tennessee have to play with on both sides of the ball?
Tennessee actually had some really good weapons last year, led by John Kelly at running back, and Marquez Callaway at receiver. Unfortunately, Kelly’s gone, along with his nine touchdowns and hard running style. Callaway’s back after a 406-yard, five-touchdown season, which was good second on the team in yards in 2017. Leading the offense you would’ve thought it might be Jarrett Guarantano, who paced Tennessee in passing a year ago with 997 yards, but only threw for four touchdowns in 136 attempts. That notion would’ve come before the Vols scored a huge graduate transfer in former Stanford quarterback Kelley Chryst, who comes from Palo Alto after starting the majority of the last two seasons for the Cardinal.
Chryst played in 23 games for Stanford over the past three seasons, but never got extended work until midway through 2016, when he became the starter and reeled off six straight wins to finish the season. He was never asked to do too much for the Cardinal, leading that pro-style offense that turned out some pretty good quarterbacks over the past decade. In 23 career games, he threw for 1926 yards on 55% completion, with 19 touchdowns to six interceptions. Not great, not bad, but he’s an upperclassman and a leader. He won’t make too many mistakes, and he’s a big guy at 6’5, 230. Check out his highlights from last year at Stanford.
He’ll get to throw to Callaway and Brandon Johnson, who led the team in catches and yards last year and can be a steady option. However, the big question mark for Tennessee may come in the possible return of Jauan Jennings. After injuring himself in the season opener last year, Jennings was dismissed from the team in November, but he may return if things go well this offseason. Jennings was the guy who caught the Hail Mary against Georgia in 2016, and hauled in 40 passes that year in total. If he comes back, the Tennessee passing attack may be pretty good. In the backfield, Ty Chandler looks like he’ll be the primary tailback after he accounted for over 400 all-purpose yards and a couple touchdowns.
Up front, there are pieces as well. Trey Smith, who may very well be the best lineman in the league, should be back, but he’s dealing with a medical issue that may preclude him from seeing the field at all this year. In the spring game, offensive line coach Will Friend had to move guys from the defense to have enough bodies, and the first-team offense housed the first-team defense in the scrimmage. Whatever he’s doing is working, but there are depth concerns that could really hamper the offensive development if someone goes down with another injury.
Getting some pieces back could help, but the potential dangers of a thin roster could cancel those benefits out. Either way, there’s nowhere to go but up for a group that scored just 19.8 ppg in 2017, good for 119th nationally.
In 2017, the Tennessee defense suffered a good bit from an offense that couldn’t hold the ball or put points on the board. I was in Knoxville for the 41-0 shutout against Georgia, and the Vols held on as long as they could against the Bulldogs before they’d been on the field too much. They played hard and had some good talent, and this year they should have some more dudes to help Jeremy Pruitt start his career nicely.
Up front, Kahlil McKenzie’s gone, but Shy Tuttle returns for his senior year. He’ll be one of five fourth or fifth-year players in the two-deep for Tracy Rocker. Jonathan Kongbo is back at defensive end along with Kyle Phillips, Darrell Taylor, and Alexis Johnson. What’s troubling for that group is that they were dominated by the makeshift offensive line in the spring game, but again, somebody has to lose when you scrimmage yourself.
Tennessee won’t only have experience up front — in the back seven, they return the top four tacklers from 2017, led by Daniel Bituli at linebacker and Nigel Warrior in the back end. The pair combined for 173 stops last season, and with Micah Abernathy and Quart’e Sapp back in the fold as well, there are more upperclassmen to lead the linebackers and defensive backs.
The Vols will need to improve in a couple areas to be better on defense, and there’s really nowhere to go but up here. They ranked 126th in rushing defense last year, allowing 251 yards per game and 5.4 yards per carry. The passing defense was just the opposite, ranking third in the nation allowing just 161 yards per game. The loss of Rashaan Gaulden to the NFL Draft hurts in that area, but the back seven should be legitimately good again. Overall, Tennessee gave up 600 yards three times in 2017, so cutting down on that number would be a good goal to get the defense back to what Vol fans are used to seeing.
Tennessee’s special teams were solid a year ago, but they played the kicker roulette with Brent Cimaglia and Aaron Medley. Now Medley’s gone, so Cimaglia will likely have the place-kicking all to himself. He hit 8-13 field goals last year, so he’ll likely get more work this season. At punter, the Vols will have to break someone in. Unfortunately, Trevor Daniel got a lot of work last year (70 punts, 47.5-yard average), and he’s gone. It’ll be either Joe Doyle or Paxton Brooks taking over this season. Thankfully, Ty Chandler should settle back in his kick return spot, where he averaged 24.5 yards per return to go along with a touchdown.
Tennessee will be one of the more interesting teams to watch this season, especially because of Jeremy Pruitt’s fiery nature as a coach. If he comes in and does what he wants to do — create a Bama junior in Knoxville — then the SEC just gets that much more difficult. I have no doubt that his staff will get these guys to play hard and make life tough for at least one team during that ridiculously hard schedule, but if the wins don’t start to mount, how long will it be before the Volunteer fans start to grumble? The schedule’s the biggest obstacle, with that five-game stretch of Florida, Georgia, Auburn, Alabama, and South Carolina. Those five teams combined for 49 wins in 2017, and that’s not even counting the opener against what should be an explosive West Virginia team. The Vols likely need to upset someone they’re not supposed to if they want to go bowling. There will be bumps and bruises along the way, but I expect Tennessee to get back near where they once were in the SEC heirarchy. Let’s hope the aspara-GUS dumbfounds Pruitt in 2018.