Tennessee football: Vols need Gator Bowl win to show legitimate improvement

In order for Tennessee football to prove it has taken a step forward in Jeremy Pruitt’s second season, the Volunteers need to beat the Indiana Hoosiers.

Did they truly take a step forward, or were they just cashing in on an easy schedule? Anybody who has watched Tennessee football play over the past month and a half know that the team has clearly dramatically improved, and that’s worthy of praise. Reaching a bowl game also shows improvement for Jeremy Pruitt his second season on the job.

However, the Vols have to win their bowl game if they are going to prove that they truly have taken a step forward. After all, despite beating two teams on the road who are 7-5 and 6-6 respectively, there is still a case to be made that the only reason they were better than their 5-7 campaign in 2018 is due to an easier schedule.

Remember, UT did beat two ranked teams in 2018 despite falling to 5-7, and they didn’t lose to any team that was a Group of Five team or one that failed to reach a bowl game. To this point, though, they haven’t lost to anybody in Pruitt’s first two years that failed to reach a bowl game.

That’s admirable. But again, UT played nine teams in 2018 who reached bowl eligibility and six who reached the top 25. This year, they played eight teams who reached bowl eligibility and three who reached the top 25.

Simply put, the schedule was easier enough this year for them to be two games better. As a result, the one thing the Gator Bowl will do is prove the Vols clearly had a better season. At that point, they will have beaten four teams who made a bowl game and at least three who had a winning record, more than the two they beat in 2018.

Now, those bad losses to start the year can’t be made up for. It will continue to look bad for Tennessee football and be a mark uglier than anything that happened during the 2018 season. But if they beat Indiana, they have three more wins than last year and a better resume overall. Winning that game is crucial.

It goes without saying that 8-5 looks a lot better than 7-6 anyway, and the chance to finish in the top 25 counts for something. We could also say that despite the easier schedule, the Vols played more bowl non-conference teams, as all three FBS non-conference opponents made bowl games.

In general, though, the difference between 2018 and 2019 is a bit narrow. A bowl win would change that. It would also help Tennessee football when it comes to recruiting, as they still have some guys to target during National Signing Day. If we are bringing this up about Pruitt, you can bet other coaches are bringing it up as well.

Because of that, this is a crucial bowl game. Even if it is one between two unranked teams who are just happy to be there, a win will go a long way. A loss, meanwhile, could raise lots of eyebrows over just how much the program improved from Year One to Year Two. So Pruitt needs to have his guys ready and motivated to play this game.