How Much Heat Should Jeremy Pruitt be Feeling?
Many Tennessee fans are up in arms after the Vols suffered an embarrassing loss in Neyland Stadium to Kentucky on Saturday. As bad as that loss was in a vacuum, it was compounded by the second half collapse the Vols had last week after leading Georgia 21-17 at halftime, before getting shut out 27-0 after the intermission. Add in the 34-7 beat down the Wildcats handed Tennessee, and the Vols have been outscored 61-7 in their last 6 quarters of football. Those six quarters have been highlighted by what can only be described as disastrous quarterback play, chiefly from Jarrett Guarantano. Many in Vol nation are ready to move on from Guarantano, and there are rumblings that if Pruitt won't, the Vols should move on from him. This is a complex and multi-faceted situation, so let's take a moment to see what Tennessee fans should reasonably expect from their head coach.
Jeremy Pruitt correctly said before this season that Tennessee coaches are judged on their record against Florida, Georgia, and Alabama. He hasn't had success in that area yet, though this was the first season there were even slight expectations of seeing him hang with those teams. That said, another truth at Tennessee is that losing to Vanderbilt and Kentucky will get you fired. Fair or not, the Vols expect to beat the Commodores and the Wildcats, and failing to do so is a perilous risk to a Tennessee head coach's job security. In three years, Pruitt has a loss each to Vanderbilt and Kentucky, the one on Saturday particularly embarrassing. The Vols also face-planted out of the gate to start the 2019 season, losing a hugely embarrassing game to Georgia State and then losing to BYU. The Vols have been annihilated twice by Florida under Pruitt, and despite playing right with Georgia for a half the last two seasons, they have been blown out by the Bulldogs in back to back seasons. This doesn't sound like it is shaping up to be much of an endorsement.
All that said, the Vols did finish 8-5 in 2019, which was an impressive accomplishment considering the way the season started and the injuries at the quarterback position the Vols dealt with. As much as a loss to Kentucky hurts, this season is far from over, and the Vols have winnable games down the stretch. Six to seven wins with an SEC only schedule is still within reach, and would be a solid effort for Pruitt's team. Beyond wins and losses, even Pruitt's harshest critic has to look at Tennessee's roster and see how much better shape it is in than when he arrived. The Vols have taken drastic steps forward at many positions. They look like an SEC team again, and have showed that they are capable of being dominant in league play at times. Every individual position group is improved and has better depth than when Pruitt arrived, save one, and that one is what is causing him so much trouble.
Losing to Kentucky, especially in a blowout, warms your seat up as a head coach in Knoxville. Whether anyone outside thinks it is fair or not. This is no disrespect to Mark Stoops, who has done a wonderful job in Lexington, but losses to Kentucky aren't tolerated at Tennessee. For all the good Pruitt has done, losses like Saturday's or Georgia State can burn through accumulated good will and patience in a hurry. Pruitt's decision to stick with Jarrett Guarantano, and the losses piled up with him, have kept more heat on Pruitt's seat than he would otherwise deserve. If Pruitt's seat is uncomfortable, and it is after getting blown out by the Wildcats, offensive coordinator Jim Chaney has some real heat, and quarterback coach Chris Weinke is sitting on lava. The Vols have not been able to develop Guarantano despite sticking with him. The more troubling part is that they seem unable to develop a quarterback able to unseat him from talented prospects that they have brought in to the program. This is the chief position over the last two seasons that has been the limiting factor for the Vols. The quarterback play has been so bad at times it has impacted the defense, leaving them on the field and gassed. Too many times Tennessee has shown in their play calling on offense that they simply didn't trust Guarantano to make any type of pass, whether Mississippi State last season or against Kentucky this year. The offensive line took a lot of blame last week, but the front and Tennessee running backs played plenty well enough to win against the Wildcats. The Vols ran for just shy of 200 yards and averaged right at 5 yards per carry, going into stacked boxes from a solid Kentucky defense. The back-breaking turnovers, terrible mistakes, and general ineffectiveness from the quarterback position resulted in another Tennessee loss. Whether the answer is a backup or true freshman Harrison Bailey, Pruitt and his staff have got to get the quarterback position solved and development started in that room, or else it is going to eventually cost them their jobs.
Pruitt came into a bare cupboard in Knoxville and some seriously toxic leftovers. The culture is changing. He has a plan, and it is evident to see in how they recruit and how the team plays. There are still mistakes. The Vols are relying on a lot of young players that didn't get much practice due to COVID&19. Pruitt is growing as a head coach, and has come leaps and bounds since his hiring in Knoxville. Firing Jeremy Pruitt, or realistically entertaining the idea at this point is not a reasonable strategy for the Vols going forward. He has done enough good for the program that he has earned more time. Losses to Kentucky do cost some of that good will and patience, however. Pruitt does have to solve his quarterback room, not just at starter, but in recruiting, depth, and entire development. Failing to correct this position could eventually cost Pruitt his position down the road. Unless there are dramatic changes this season, Pruitt is going to be left with little choice but to make some changes to his staff to facilitate quarterback development, as the current arrangement appears to be failing. How Pruitt negotiates his quarterback questions could impact what his career in Knoxville looks like. Pruitt deserves to be safe in Knoxville, if a little uncomfortable, for now, but solving his quarterback room is priority number one. Even if it means staff changes result down the road.