Jacksonville awaits Tennessee in just under seven days. Fortunately for most fans, they’ll enjoy the pleasure of watching the game from the comfort of their homes.
I, like most members of the Vols beat, will be making the nine-hour drive to cap off UT’s second season under Jeremy Pruitt.
Hello, sleepless nights. Goodbye, eight-hour naps.
Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t trade what I do for anything. When my alarm goes off at 7 a.m. every morning, I attack each day with the sole purpose of producing the best content possible.
The process always comes with its downsides, but there tradeoff is very much worth it.
I’ve spent countless Saturdays in press boxes over the past three years - from working as a staff writer for The Daily Beacon, UT’s campus newspaper to my current position as SI’s Tennessee publisher.
There are none that will hit quite like Saturday though, and the Vols should feel the same.
This is a program that had yet to make a postseason appearance since 2016, undergoing one of the most volatile coaching searches in recent memory. Pruitt’s first season ended at two games below .500, but Tennessee showed glimpses of progress.
They may have been brief, but they were certainly there.
Wins against ranked completion in Auburn and Kentucky provided fans with hope, but that hope would come crashing down hard after the Vols got off to their worst start in 30 years.
Aside from UT’s upset loss to Wyoming in 2008, there hadn’t been a more embarrassing loss (at home, nonetheless) than the Vol’s season-opening defeat at the hands of Georgia State.
Yet, given all of that, here they are.
Behind Pruitt’s vigorous leadership, however, Tennessee was able to reverse its fortunes to close the season, winning 6 of its final 7 games.
That stretch included wins over Mississippi State, South Carolina, Kentucky and Missouri, the latter two on the road. The Vols also overcame Vanderbilt to close out their regular season schedule, the first time they had done so in three years.
Whether it was by relying on Jarrett Guarantano’s arm or Derrick Ansley’s defense, UT played perhaps it’s best stretch of football since opening up the 2016 season 5-0.
The Vols’ work is far from finished, however, and Pruitt emphasized that reality as Tennessee kicked off its bowl practice sessions.
Marquez Callaway and Jauan Jennings will be playing in their final collegiate games, along with a plethora of other UT seniors. Not only does this game mean something to them, it could also be Guarantano’s last stand as starting quarterback.
His midseason turnaround has been equally as impressive as the team’s, but the Vols seem to be moving in a different direction with Brian Maurer continuing to develop and two new quarterback commits coming in.
So why am I making the (seemingly) endless drive to northern Florida? Aside from enjoying an afternoon on the beach in Jan., it could be the start of something special for Tennessee football.
Again, am I saying the occasional indulgence doesn’t make the trip better? Of course not, but given that 18 hours of total drive time are at stake, I feel an obligation to list both the positives and negatives.
Pruitt may not be the next Phillip Fulmer in Knoxville, but hardly anyone is asking him to be.
Here’s here to carve out his own legacy, whatever that may be. Next Thursday will go a long way in deciding which direction his narrative is heading.