Jeremy Pruitt could have easily lost this team when Tennessee opened last season with a stunning 38-30 loss to Georgia State and staggered to a 1-4 start. Instead, the Vols won seven of their final eight and finished on a six-game winning streak capped by a Gator Bowl victory. So we’ll buy into the belief that the players have bought into Pruitt’s system.
Here’s the problem with ranking Tennessee this high: The Vols could be the best five-loss team in the country. That’s the reality when you play at Georgia, at Auburn and also have to face Texas A&M, Florida and Alabama. But isn’t the third-best team in the SEC East – and maybe the sixth-best in the SEC – worthy of Top 15 consideration, especially this year?
The key for Pruitt is getting consistent quarterback play, with senior Jarrett Guarantano having 25 roller-coaster starts to his credit. But Tennessee has options at the position now, including hotshot freshman Harrison Bailey. The offensive line, anchored by guard Trey Smith, figures to be among the league’s best. That will help an improved ground game and a wide receiver group that has potential but needs to show it can produce when the games start.
Defensively, Tennessee gave up 29 points or more in five of its first seven games last year. The unit buckled down and didn’t allow more than 22 points in any game during the six-game winning streak to end the year.
This will be a competitive team in the rugged SEC, one that faces a daunting schedule. But it sure looks like a program on the rise again. All it will take is one big upset along the way to jumpstart the revival.