What we have here is optimism wrapped in confusion.
The Southeastern Conference has taken one bold step in the general direction of a football season – without knowing exactly how everybody is going to do what. There are who-when-where questions to be answered. Somebody somewhere is undoubtedly working on a fire drill.
The all-league concept, playing only SEC games, is sound. Testing and protocols will be standardized. Scheduling flexibility is built-in. Maybe all the puzzle pieces will fit.
Before so many hurdles appeared, this was going to be a very interesting year for Tennessee and Jeremy Pruitt. Expectations traditionally go up in Year 3. Under current circumstances, it is the degree of difficulty that has gone up. Probable victories over Charlotte, Furman and Troy have been erased.
The boss understands.
Two and a half years ago, Phillip Fulmer conceded that Pruitt inherited a mess. The coach made progress. Fulmer thought the reasonable goal for 2019 was to qualify for a bowl game. That mission was accomplished.
Fulmer got excited after the onside kick decided the Gator Bowl and the staff had success in recruiting. The athletics director exclaimed “We’re back!”
Soon and very soon he realized he was too far out on a limb.
“I mean, we’re on our way back. People should be excited about where we are.”
Pruitt’s second season wasn’t quite as good as the six-game winning streak and 8-5 record implied but Fulmer, who obviously has a vested interest, recognized solid improvement, development of depth, a stronger recruiting base and reasons to be optimistic.
“Hopefully, that shows up in the record.”
Hopefully, there is a record.
The SEC says practice can begin on Aug. 17. Coaches appear to be organized. Players have been lifting, running and jumping around, getting stronger and faster. Rumor has it they are ready to begin actual football preparations. Senior leadership is in place.
Presidents and chancellors of SEC schools approved the 10-game idea to begin Sept. 26. They and we hope it can happen.
The plan is subject to change. It won’t expand. Be sure the SEC is hoping (and probably praying) for even a hint of virus regression. A lot can happen between now and late September.
To play or not play was a giant decision. Risks to the health and welfare of a thousand and a half special athletes had to be weighed against many million TV dollars that pay stadium mortgages, support inflated salaries and fund almost all college athletics.
Fans have been milling around on the outside, wondering about ticket investments and travel plans.
The Volunteers are wondering about more mundane things – offensive identity, another inside linebacker, young receivers, improved quarterback play, Cade Mays’ eligibility and whether new assistant coaches can coach as well as they recruit.
There really is a question about what the offense would like to be. Last year never achieved the Jim Chaney look. Change is undoubtedly forthcoming. No way can a team challenge for an SEC East title with these national rankings: Scoring 108th in the country; yards per play 88th; rushing offense 114th; passing offense 97th; red zone touchdown efficiency 112th.
You can decide where to place the blame. Quarterback inconsistency is a favorite whipping boy.
Tennessee has 16 returning starters. It does not have linebacker Daniel Bituli. It does not have receivers Jauan Jennings and Marquez Calloway. Pass-rusher Darrell Taylor in now an NFL millionaire.
Big name on the disabled list is Austin Pope, battering-ram blocker who masquerades as a tight end.
Tennessee no longer has strength coach Craig Fitzgerald. He was either a critical part of Pruitt’s staff or grossly overpaid.
There are interesting new faces. The head coach traded in three key position coaches for what might be more effective recruiters. Just guessing the new guys will be fine on the field. They seem highly motivated.
Fulmer is correct. The roster is much better. Large challenges remain. The losing streak against Alabama has reached 13. Tennessee has defeated Florida once in the past 15 years. Georgia is 8-2 against the Vols in the past decade.
Not much of that problem belongs to Pruitt or Henry To’o To’o or Eric Gray.
Alas, cold, hard facts do convey caution about exuberant optimism and upward trajectory. Some of those delightful victories of last season were very close shaves. Matching the eight of 2019 may be out of reach. To move up requires knocking one of the big boys out of the way.
Marvin West welcomes reader comments or questions. His address is firstname.lastname@example.org