Tennessee football: Yes, it’s time to panic

Tennessee fans watch disappointedly during the second half of a game between Tennessee and Kentucky at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tenn. on Saturday, Oct. 17, 2020.
Tennessee fans watch disappointedly during the second half of a game between Tennessee and Kentucky at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tenn. on Saturday, Oct. 17, 2020. /

There is no excuse for the Jeremy Pruitt’s Tennessee football Volunteers.

You can’t spin this, no matter how much you want to. Tennessee football was setting out to prove that it was one step closer to the top tier of the SEC East this year. They may not be on the level of the Georgia Bulldogs or Florida Gators, but they had finally moved past everybody else.

Then Saturday happened. The Vols lost 34-7 to the Kentucky Wildcats, their first loss to UK at Neyland Stadium since 1984 and their worst loss to the program since 1935. In one afternoon, they proved they are nowhere near where they need to be.

This wasn’t a fluke. Don’t try to explain it away by Jarrett Guarantano’s first-half mistakes, which included two pick-sixes. Kentucky made the first mistake of the game anyway, spotting the Vols the ball past midfield with a fumble.

Jeremy Pruitt knew going in that the Wildcats win games by winning the turnover battle. They had six interceptions to win their first matchup against the Mississippi State Bulldogs. As a result, them committing the first turnover gave UT a huge advantage, and they couldn’t cash in.

Knowing that, why would they throw it so much? Why would Pruitt and Jim Chaney then bring in JT Shrout and have him throw a desperation pass on 2nd and 21 from the Vols’ own 14-yard line, which would naturally be another interception and set up a UK field goal to put them up 17-0?

Not having a game plan to avoid what Kentucky does falls on Guarantano and the Tennessee football coaches. These are things that a head coach should be aware of, particularly in his third year on the job.

So the turnovers aren’t a fluke, but even if they were, that doesn’t explain the second half. Remember, the Vols cut it to 17-7 in the first half. After their first touchdown drive, they got a grand total of one first down over their next four offensive drives into the second half.

Kentucky, meanwhile, was never forced to punt in the second half. They had a 76-yard touchdown drive, a 49-yard field goal drive and a 54-yard touchdown drive. Then they ran out the clock, gaining 65 yards on 11 plays on their final offensive drive.

No reasonable person could look at that and say in any way that the Vols gave Kentucky this win. Kentucky took it the way Kentucky does, and then they dominated. There is no saving grace for the program after this one.

Previously, you could spin losses. Pruitt inherited a disaster in 2018, so going 5-7 made sense. Although the losses to the Georgia State Panthers and BYU Cougars to open 2019 were devastating, it made sense given the way Pruitt and Tennessee football were still rebuilding to a certain degree. They had key injuries and weren’t deep enough uyet.

This is his third season, though, and the Vols just got blown out at home by Kentucky. Such a loss changes everything. You can’t say the program is still developing. Guarantano is in his fourth year starting, his third year under Pruitt and his second year with Jim Chaney, Tee Martin and Chris Weinke coaching him in different ways.

The offensive line has three players who were Freshman All-Americans, sixth-year senior and another guy who was a five-star recruit and is in his second year starting. One of those guys is a two-time First team All-SEC blocker.

light. Related Story. Five takeaways from Vols' 34-7 loss to Kentucky

On defense, the Vols returned everybody on the line and a freshman All-American inside linebacker. Simply put, they brought back a lot of talent and had a top 10 recruiting class. The depth is there.

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Simply put, Tennessee football has enough talent, depth and experience to offset key absences. Meanwhile, Pruitt has had enough time to make sure they are properly developed. He may not have a team to compete for the national title yet, but he certainly had enough talent to run the table against lesser competition.

Beyond all of that, though, he had more than enough to not get blown out by an inferior opponent. Losing 34-7 to Kentucky doesn’t happen to third-year head coaches on Rocky Top, and yes, it’s more than enough to start panicking given what comes next.

What’s more disturbing is how often Pruitt makes excuses, and he’ll start  it by saying, “I’m not making excuses.” After Saturday’s game, he explained away some of the issues by bringing up the limited number of practices many Tennessee football players had due to the pandemic.

Here’s the issue: What team didn’t have to limit practices due to that? It’s affected everybody. In fact, with more returning starters than most teams, including Kentucky, and stability among the coordinators, this is something that should have favored the Vols.

This has been indicative of Pruitt. He was hammering the mistakes more than anybody in the postgame, ignoring how his defense got torched in the second half. Remember, he was hired for his credentials as a defensive coordinator.

At halftime, he even made the ridiculous statement that outside of the turnovers, UT didn’t have any negative plays. You know, because, if you eliminate negative things, you don’t have many negative things that happened. It was embarrassing.

Things are about to get worse, too. At 2-2, the Vols now have to face an Alabama Crimson Tide team that looked dominant Saturday over the Georgia Bulldog. That means Pruitt will be 2-3 entering the bye.

Next. Top five performers in Vols' 34-7 loss to Kentucky. dark

In fact, given what happened on Saturday, the Vanderbilt Commodores are the only likely win left on their schedule. Does anybody trust Tennessee football at the Arkansas Razorbacks or Auburn Tigers? What about at home against the Texas A&M Aggies. Simply put, they are in trouble, and after Saturday’s loss, it’s fair game for Vol fans to panic.