After a fifth straight loss, losing in the same fashion, with the same mystifying personnel decisions, it would be fair to question if Jeremy Pruitt is in over his head. After the Vols lost 30-17 to Auburn on the Plains, there were some hard questions leveled at Pruitt. When the results of the game are coupled with Pruitt's post-game press conference, it is now clear that he is in over his head. For the second loss in a row, Pruitt followed a loss full of coaching gaffes with a press conference full of bewildering answers. The statements Pruitt made reflect stubbornness and a disconnect from reality. They show a standard for the entire team, that seemingly doesn't apply to one, single player. It is also a crash course in how to lose a locker room. These are all the more maddening because Pruitt knows the game of football far, far too well to make these decisions and statements.
Throughout the season, Jeremy Pruitt has insisted that Jarrett Guarantano gives Tennessee the best chance to win. He made that statement again after the Auburn loss, a statement that Pruitt is simply wrong about. Pruitt has championed Guarantano’s work in practice, but his numbers in games clearly show that he does not give Tennessee the best chance to win. The quarterback situation Pruitt was dealt coming into 2020 featured injuries and quarantine that are out of his control, but despite how hard Guarantano works and how much he is respected by his team, the wheels come off at the worst possible time. Since the second half of the Georgia game, Guarantano has thrown more touchdowns to Tennessee opponents than to his receivers. That isn't counting the fumble returned for a score by Georgia either. The offense under Guarantano since the second half in Athens has allowed 5 defensive touchdowns versus only scoring 6 offensive touchdowns. The Vols have had long stretches of games where they refused to call pass plays because Jim Chaney clearly does not trust Guarantano to throw the ball. Guarantano has, in this season alone, been benched due to poor performance in favor of three different quarterbacks. Jarrett Guarantano does not give Tennessee the best chance to win, and Jeremy Pruitt and his staff seem to be the only people in America unable to see that. Pruitt is a brilliant defensive mind, he understands the game of football technically as well as any coach in America. It is because of this that he has to know he is wrong about Guarantano and is too stubborn to admit it. The only other option is that Pruitt does believe in his fifth-year senior quarterback, despite having benched him for poor performance in favor of Keller Chryst, Will McBride, Brian Maurer, JT Shrout, Jauan Jennings, and Harrison Bailey so far in his three seasons on Rocky Top. Willful stubbornness is the only reason to continue believing Guarantano is the best option, as game stats and results are clear he is ineffective at best as a quarterback.
When pressed about Guarantano's poor performance, Pruitt said that, “He didn't miss two field goals or blow a coverage for a touchdown.” While Pruitt is correct in this statement, Guarantano did throw yet another pick-six, this one of the one hundred-yard variety, that appeared to be a 14-point swing. The Vols lost by 13 points. To clarify this for Pruitt, had the Vols scored as it appeared, they were going to, the resulting difference would have put the Vols in the lead. It may seem a belabored point, but after an Arkansas game where Pruitt didn't realize made field goals of 48 and 50 yards were longer than a 42-yard attempt he passed on for being, “Too far out,” clarifying simple math may be required. Perhaps more disturbing than Pruitt's comments is his willingness to throw the rest of his team under the bus while never placing blame on Guarantano, no matter how terribly he plays. Two missed field goals by Brent Cimaglia did hurt the Vols tonight, however a 50-yard attempt is far from automatic, while his 37-yard miss was one the Vols absolutely expected him to make. Still, two missed field goals only cost the Vols opportunities for 6 points, while Guarantano lost the Vols a chance at 7 while giving 7 to Auburn. Also, in the spirit of keeping the entire team accountable for mistakes, Guarantano took bad sacks where he held on to the ball too long and double-clutched it before each of Cimaglia's missed field goal attempts, killing drives and increasing the difficulty of the kicks. This kind of logic is never applied to Guarantano, however. After a loss to Kentucky in which Guarantano imploded and spotted the Wildcats 17 points thanks to turnovers from a clean pocket, Pruitt complained that the running backs didn't run hard enough. This was in a game where Guarantano threw for less yards to Tennessee players than Kentucky defenders, while Eric Gray averaged over five yards per carry running into stacked Kentucky boxes all game. Pruitt has been quick to heap blame on his other players, to pull them for mistakes, to blame any and every one for losses outside of his offensive coordinator, quarterback coach, and Guarantano. This refusal to place blame where it clearly belongs, while holding the rest of the team to such a high standard is what makes the situation so baffling.
The Vols have played well enough to win at other positions. The Vols were effective against Kentucky and Arkansas on the ground, and Eric Gray was fantastic against the Tigers last night. Tennessee's offensive line has created an effective run game, despite running into 8 and 9-man boxes most of the time. Interceptions for touchdowns against Kentucky were from clean pockets, the pick six against Auburn was Guarantano staring down his receiver from the time he was making a run fake, throwing flat-footed, holding the ball too long, and not seeing the safety. When Guarantano is sacked, he fumbles on an unacceptable percentage of hits. Guarantano has been given more than adequate protection from his line, but he holds the ball far too long, rarely delivering it on time. What's more, Guarantano regularly fails to identify blitzes, taking sacks rather than helping his line by getting the ball out quickly to his hot reads. No matter how Guarantano practices, in game situations, with plenty of talent around him, he fails to produce results. The statistical evidence is broad and overwhelming, and it all supports that Pruitt's assertion that Guarantano gives his team the best chance to win is, and has been, wrong.
So why not make a change? It is hard to imagine other quality coaches allowing their season to be sunk by sticking with a single player that is performing so poorly. In fact, it is hard to imagine a scenario outside of Pruitt actively trying to get himself fired where he continues to play Guarantano rather than moving on to develop younger players. Personnel issues have been numerous this season for the Vols, though the Quarterback situation has been the most enigmatic and prominent. When asked what he would say to fans concerned about the state of the program, Pruitt said, “That ain’t my job, guys. My job is to coach.” Keeping that in mind, Pruitt has failed at his job like no coach in the history of the Tennessee program, losing a fifth straight game by double digits for the first time in 129 years of Volunteer football. This coach has no answers for Tennessee fans for the state of the program, stating it is not his job. That is fair. His coaching acumen, particularly where his quarterback is concerned, can only then be seen as overwhelmed by stubbornness or stupidity. His ability to motivate his team, due to a multitude of blowout losses and failures to prepare for opponents, can only be viewed as a failure. In Pruitt's third season, his team has clearly taken a dramatic step back. Pruitt may not want to comment on the state of the program because it is not his job. He may also not want to admit the state of the program is not where it needs to be because he has failed in doing his job so spectacularly that he is in danger of losing said job. The same questions remain for Pruitt leaving Auburn as he has faced most weeks this season.