Improved Tennessee found a shocking way to lose

Marvin Westwestwords

Key words: Bad, blunder and buyouts.


Last Monday, Tennessee fans were numb. At 0-2, they are ticked. Tennessee has a fundamentally bad football team that looked OK for a while. It played much better against Brigham Young than in the opener but couldn’t gain 20 inches when it mattered most, still doesn’t know where to line up on defense and lost on a middle-school blunder.

That touched off the illogical cry for buyouts of coaches. The first question from a faithful reader was “How much will it cost?”

There is a hint of brightness. The incoming Chattanooga Mocs will be polite. They are grateful for the budget-balancing opportunity at Neyland Stadium. This time, they won’t try to tear down the goalposts if they win.

However alarming you consider the loss to BYU, a more threatening storm cloud is looming. Florida will show no mercy. That will make Jeremy Pruitt’s two-year record 6-10. What do you think it will be after Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama?

Tennessee arrived for game 2 with a different disposition. Everybody was wide awake. Pruitt was motivated, involved, connected. A higher power undoubtedly had whispered that the game starts at the beginning, that running through the T is a really big deal.

The crowd was great. It tried to help. The visiting team couldn’t hear. It erred.

The Vols set some kind of record. They scored on their first possession. That was pure luck. Jarrett Guarantano threw a poor pass. Instead of intercepting, Cougar defender Kavika Fonua skillfully deflected the ball to Jauan Jennings for a touchdown. It looked like volleyball.

Incidentally, anybody except a linebacker with stone hands would have picked off the pass.

Tennessee was the better team for a half. The scoreboard did not reflect that superiority. Guarantano sapped the energy with another misfire early in the third quarter. He threw into triple coverage. BYU caught the ball and the fever. The Vols hung tough, couldn’t score a put-away but should have won. They lasted into the second overtime period.

For the first time in a long time, Tennessee was not beaten or battered at the line of scrimmage. The Vols out-rushed the Cougars 242-107 and gave up just one sack. There was no reward.

It was unbelievable that the secondary, with $5 million and change of coaching expertise at every smart session and practice, committed the unpardonable sin of letting a receiver get behind it in the closing seconds.

Since the invention of the forward pass (1906), the counter precept has been “Don’t get beat deep.”

Under current financial restraints, the call for “buyouts” borders on insanity. Tennessee is still paying Butch not to coach. Pruitt’s contract runs through Jan. 31, 2024. Some assistants, obviously overpaid, have three-year contracts. Some only two. The University of Tennessee is stuck, boxed-in, no escape hatch.

But, there is hope. Pruitt might get better with on-the-job training.

Even by Tennessee standards for confusion, this situation is historically bad. The Vols lost a game after having the upper hand for 59 minutes and 43 seconds. The grip was never firm enough.

There were times when they ran really well. Ty Chandler and Eric Gray gained big chunks. Offensive linemen knocked some opponents backward. Putting two tight ends on the same side was effective – for a while.

There were some bad failures in the fourth quarter. The running attack got nothing when it was time to finish the game.

Guarantano was not sharp. Receivers tried to help. Jennings made a spectacular play in the first overtime. He overpowered a defender to turn another probable interception into a touchdown. Jennings is a warrior.

Disaster of the day? BYU was third-and-six at the wrong end of the field with 17 seconds left and no timeouts.

Alontae Taylor was responsible for the deep third on his side of the field. As BYU receiver Micah Simon ran past, Taylor looked like he thought he had safety help behind him. Safety Nigel Warrior was not in the neighborhood.

Cougars quarterback Zach Wilson saw what was happening and hit Simon in stride. Warrior eventually arrived but missed the tackle. Taylor, running for his life, finally caught up with the action at the UT 16. Seven seconds remained. Wilson spiked the ball to stop the clock. Jake Oldroyd booted a 33-yard field goal to bring on overtime.

Guarantano still wasn’t sharp but he and Jennings got the Vols to the second extra period. The offense was out of gas. Brent Cimaglia kicked another field goal.

BYU, sensing the joy, seized the opportunity. A reverse popped free. Ty’Son Williams ran into a scrum at the 3. He and his friends kept pushing. A bunch of Vols got in the way. Little by little, the whole crowd sort of drifted into the end zone. It was anti-climactic.

The answer to the first question is too much. Pruitt’s buyout this week would be about $12 million, 60 per cent of what his contract says he is yet to be paid. If assistants were sent packing, they’d get compensation for the remaining years on their agreements. Starting over would cost even more, in damages and bait to attract new people.

Listen to old age and decades of observation: Different is not always better. Unless recruiting crashes, unless the stadium goes empty, unless students paint the rock, don’t do buyouts.

Marvin West welcomes reader remarks or questions. His address is marvinwest75@gmail.com.

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