Tennessee football at South Carolina could define paths of coaches

The Tennessee football Volunteers and Gamecocks may define Will Muchamp and Jeremy Pruitt.

When Tennessee football visits the South Carolina Gamecocks Saturday night, two former Nick Saban defensive coordinators who won national championships with him will be looking to determine the trajectory of their coaching careers. It all could ride on that game.

At the end of last season, Will Muschamp was officially on the hot seat. He went 4-8 in his fourth year at South Carolina, just like he did in his third year with the Florida Gators. Jeremy Pruitt, meanwhile, generated a ton of momentum with an 8-5 finish and a six-game winning streak to close out the season after a horrendous start.

Both Pruitt and Muschamp were hoping for splash seasons this year. Then the pandemic came, and the SEC decided to go to a 10-game conference-only schedule. All of a sudden, Tennessee football and South Carolina are both desperate for just a winning record.

That situation may bring a mulligan to Pruitt and Muschamp at their respective programs, but there doesn’t seem to be room for both in the SEC East long-term with Kirby Smart still running the Georgia Bulldogs. As a result, this could become a career-defining game.

Pruitt needs to prove he’s not Muschamp at this point. As of now, Pruitt has a ton of momentum for a strong finish to his second season at UT. Well, both of Muschamp’s stops, with the Florida Gators and South Carolina, had strong second seasons. Like Pruitt last year, though, Muschamp took advantage of an easy schedule his second year at USC.

A major first step to doing that would actually be to beat Muschamp again, his third year on the job, while Muschamp tries to prove he’s turning things around. Losing in Columbia, S.C. could send Tennessee football in a tailspin. The Vols still have five top 15 teams they have to play this year plus the Kentucky Wildcats, so with this loss, they could stumble to 3-7 on the year.

Now, when it comes to Muschamp, his hot seat could be scorching, even if he gets a mulligan this year, with a loss to the Vols. Losing to UT would likely send him to 1-5 with the Florida Gators, Auburn Tigers, LSU Tigers and Texas A&M Aggies on the slate in the early going. The Georgia Bulldogs are still on the schedule too, so they could be destined for 4-6 at best at that point.

Simply put, both teams are desperate for a win to help define their trajectories, and it matters more for the coaches than anything. If Muschamp gets back to owning Rocky Top, Pruitt will have a lot to worry about going forward.

Looking at the overall slate within the context of this year, this could also define which team finishes at least .500 and not below it. They each play the Vanderbilt Commodores and Missouri Tigers, and while South Carolina visits the Ole Miss Rebels, Tennessee football visits the Arkansas Razorbacks. On top of that, the Kentucky Wildcats is a toss-up for both of them.

That’s a path to four wins, but that means the winner of this game will be the only one with a path to five wins that doesn’t involve a major upset. As a result, beyond just the trajectories of Muschamp and Pruitt, the results of this season are riding on this game.