Coming next is the biggest stair-step game of Jeremy Pruitt’s football life.
He’s been in some really big ones as an assistant coach, as defensive coordinator on his way up. National championship rings prove it.
This is his show. Spotlight is turned up bright, big CBS afternoon audience, giant opportunity to exceed expectations.
Is Tennessee really ready to challenge Georgia in Athens between the famous hedges?
“Absolutely,” Pruitt said.
“Wow! Did you hear that?”
The coach didn’t say the Volunteers will beat the Bulldogs, just that they will show up as scheduled and look ’em in the eyes.
Tennessee coaches and players are gaining confidence. The team definitely improved from Game 1 to Game 2. Alas, Georgia has more players. Their second-half knockout of Auburn was very impressive. That tribe of Tigers gained only 38 rushing yards on 22 tries. The gambling industry says Georgia is two touchdowns better than Tennessee.
The Bulldogs may or may not welcome Cade Mays back to town. He has switched from them to us.
The Volunteers developed an attitude in the past few days. It was bad for Missouri. At Neyland Stadium, the home team showed a fierce determination to run the football. You could see and feel it on the opening possession.
The Vols “went for it” on fourth down at their own 34. There was no hesitation. They knew they were going to do it and they succeeded.
The Tigers soon grasped what was happening. They loaded the box with an extra defender or two to stop the run. Pass defense was essentially one on one. Tennessee could have switched to an air raid.
Instead, it defied the odds and ran the ball 51 times, 232 yards, four rushing touchdowns. The offensive line was, at times, overwhelming. The jumbo package was a delight, something like a ton of beef on the hoof.
The five starters – Trey Smith, Cade Mays, Darnell Wright, Jerome Carvin and Brandon Kennedy – plus Riley Locklear and Cooper Mays (masquerading as a tight end and wingback) played smash-mouth, knockdown and drag-out football.
Large freshman Javontez Spraggins plus K’Rojhn Calbert and Jahmir Johnson are in this fraternity.
Tennessee has come up with an interesting concept, sending forth as many offensive linemen as will fit on the field.
“Such a beautiful sight,” said Jarrett Guarantano, winning quarterback in more ways than one.
“It’s fun and I know it messes with other teams a lot,” Smith said. “It’s a lot of meat to handle.”
Running backs Eric Gray and Ty Chandler were big-yardage beneficiaries. Not once were they tackled for losses.
“It’s like running behind a Mack truck,” said Eric. “You get the ball and everything was just wide open, and, hey, it’s a touchdown.”
“We have the best offensive line in the country,” said linebacker Henry To’o To’o.
Four times Guarantano made it on fourth-down sneaks. The quarterback’s overall performance was significantly improved over his play at South Carolina. Passing accuracy was much better. Protection was relevant. He absorbed only one wicked hit.
For the most part, the Vols looked like they were having fun. They were not flawless. Pruitt fussed about too many men in orange shirts standing around watching when they were supposed to be doing something. He didn’t like spending a timeout because the defense had 12 on the field.
The coach approved of Theo Jackson’s interception and runback. He thought other passes should have been picked.
“I’m 47 and I believe I could have got that one,” he said of a Missouri overthrow.
Pruitt expressed disappointment about secondary play. He said the same thing twice about missed tackles and mental errors.
He was proud of the Vols “for finding a way to win.”
That part was no surprise. They are better than those Tigers.
It seems to me and others that the shoe will be on the other foot Saturday. To win a ninth consecutive game, the Vols will have to really hustle, hit harder and be smarter than the Bulldogs. Some luck might help.
It seems Pruitt sees the possibility.
Marvin West welcomes reader comments or questions. His address is firstname.lastname@example.org