Opponent: Tennessee Volunteers
Date: November 24
All-time series record: Remind any Tennessee fan that we’ve beaten them 4 of the last 6 years and they’ll be sure to tell you the all-time series record
Last meeting: November 25, 2017, in Knoxville. Vanderbilt won, 42-24.
Last year’s record: 4-8, 107th in S&P+
Head Coach: Jeremy Pruitt (1st year)
Returning starters: 13 (6 offense/7 defense)
Let’s all take a moment to point and laugh at Tennessee for going winless in the SEC.
Tennessee wasn’t supposed to be that bad last year. They were widely assumed to drop off from the back-to-back nine-win seasons they enjoyed in 2015 and 2016, but nobody was predicting 4-8. And for most of September and October, the Vols didn’t play like a 4-8 team: they lost to Florida on a Hail Mary, got stuffed at the goal line in a six-point loss to South Carolina, and lost to Kentucky on a last-minute touchdown. Sure, they also narrowly squeaked by UMass and got drilled by Georgia and Alabama, but at the end of October this was a 3-5 team that was still a few plays away from being 6-2.
But quarterback play was an issue all season. Tennessee started the season with Quinten Dormady as its quarterback, and he was bad. At midseason, redshirt freshman Jarrett Guarantano stepped in and did slightly better, though he was by no means a good quarterback. Then Guarantano got hurt, true freshman Will McBride stepped in against Missouri, and the 50-17 blowout loss was Butch Jones’ last. Brady Hoke finished off the worst season in Tennessee history.
And the Vols were just getting started.
A week after the Vols closed the season by losing to Vanderbilt for the second year in a row, and fourth in the last six, Tennessee thought it had its man: Ohio State defensive coordinator and former Rutgers and Tampa Bay head coach Greg Schiano. This seemed like a solid, if unsexy, hire. And then... well, Tennessee didn’t hire Schiano. We could recap that ordeal for the lulz, but you can read about it on the interwebs.
And then things got weird. Coach after coach very publicly turned down the Tennessee job. It would later turn out that Tennessee legend Phil Fulmer was intentionally sabotaging AD John Currie’s coaching search in an effort to usurp the athletic director’s chair for himself, and it worked. In desperation, Currie borrowed a Kansas State booster’s plane to fly out to L.A. to meet with Washington State coach Mike Leach; Leach actually accepted the job, only to find out that Currie did not actually have the authority to offer him the job.
Fulmer took over from there, and ultimately landed on Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. That a two-time national championship coordinator was not a hot name for head coaching job should have been a red flag — go ask Georgia fans about Pruitt if you’re interested — but after the way everything played out, Tennessee’s probably just happy that’s over.
Now, Vol fans have talked themselves into Pruitt. They might have talked themselves into this year’s team.
Two of the three quarterbacks who played last year are back — Dormady transferred to Houston — but Pruitt hit up the grad transfer market for former Stanford QB Keller Chryst. Chryst’s stat line from last year bears a striking resemblance to the departed Dormady’s, and that was with Bryce Love to hand off to. Tennessee, on the other hand, lost its leading rusher in John Kelly to the NFL, and backup Ty Chandler wasn’t terribly effective as a freshman (4.3 yards per carry.) The Vols do return their top two receivers from last year in Marquez Callaway and Brandon Johnson, but will anyone get them the ball? And up front, Tennessee has to replace three starters on the offensive line.
Things are a bit better on the defensive side of the ball, with seven starters returning, including the team’s top four tacklers. And Jeremy Pruitt knows how to run a defense. But for much of last season, the defense wasn’t really the problem; the problem was entirely an offense that couldn’t score.
There might be enough here to threaten a bowl bid in Pruitt’s first year — but the problems on the offensive side of the ball seemed to go far beyond Butch Jones’ mismanagement of the program. From Vanderbilt’s perspective, the only negative is that Tennessee may well be closer to figuring it out by the time they come to Nashville on November 24. Or, Tennessee fans will be screaming about the latest coaching savior. One or the other.