Sanning: It's Time for Tennessee Football to Right the Ship Against Vanderbilt
I doubt that Jeremy Pruitt can see into the future. I doubt quite a bit when it comes to society these days, actually, but when it pertains to this topic, I am (almost) certain.
One thing I am also almost certain of: Tennessee can not let its foot off of the metaphorical gas pedal, at least not now.
Following a disastrous 1-4 start to the regular season, the Vols have rallied quite impressively over the past seven weeks. It all started on Oct. 12 against Mississippi State in Knoxville, and the tidal wave of momentum has yet to cease since.
From that point on, UT has lost just once. That one defeat? It came against the nation's top-ranked team at the time, at home nonetheless.
Tennessee has racked up wins against South Carolina, Kentucky and Missouri since then, with the latter two coming on the road in albeit mildly hostile environments.
What does that have anything to do with the headline? I'm glad you asked.
Since the decision was made for Phillip Fulmer to step down in 2008, the Vols have yet to truly experience prosperity since his tenure.
UT thought it was on its way back to prominence under Butch Jones in 2016, but inexplicable losses after a 5-0 start ultimately sealed Tennessee's fate that year. Incompetence at the head coaching position didn't help, but that's another discussion meant for a different day.
The point is, the Vols, while red-hot, still have work to do. They've won four straight, but they need to make it six by the time the final set of shoulder pads is stored away for the offseason.
Another thing: they must beat Vanderbilt on Saturday. I'll emphasize again: they MUST.
Tennessee, while dormant for the last decade, has one of the richest traditions in college football. Losing to its in-state rival from nearly three hours down I-40 was not a part of that tradition, but it's quickly becoming one.
As previously mentioned, the Vols have yet to beat Vanderbilt since 2015. Last year's 38-13 loss in Nashville was just the rotten cherry on top of a spoiled sundae for UT fans.
That 2016 Tennessee team that had College Football Playoff-level talent? It got embarrassed by the Commodores as well (again, we will not get into coaching).
Since 2010, Vanderbilt has taken five of the nine matchups over the Vols. That's inexcusable, particularly for a program that holds a 75-32-5 all-time record in the series.
From 1983 until 2004, UT downed the Commodores an astonishing 22 consecutive times. There's a reason that streaks like that are not that common, particularly in today's day and age.
Given the Vols' recent history against Vanderbilt, the possibility of an upset always looms. Georgia State and BYU were perfect examples of what is known as a "trap game."
And those both came back to bite Tennessee in its backside on both occasions.
Granted, this is not the same team as the one that opened up the season by losing four of its first five games. Not even close.
UT's defense has ramped up the intensity, causing a boatload of problems for the opposition. The Vols have allowed just 61 points in Tennessee's five wins since Oct. 12, and that same defensive unit came up with a season-saving goal line stand against Kentucky.
They would go on the road and do it again in their next matchup, limiting a Kelly Bryant-led offense to just 280 total yards a week ago. Needless to say, Riley Neal is no Kelly Bryant and Gerry Gdowski is no Derek Dooley as a play-caller.
That doesn't mean that the Commodores will not present a challenge, however. In fact, the trap door that Mason and Vanderbilt hold the rope too may be the largest that Tennessee has stood over all season.
Yes, the Vols have room for error. Yes, they've already clinched a bowl game appearance. But settling for "good enough" is not what is going to get UT back into contention for an SEC championship.
Being comfortable with mediocrity won't, either. This time, there are no excuses for a loss. Not on Saturday and not in December.
That's a reality Tennessee must come to embrace if it is going to get the job done and move in the right direction long-term.