Column revised to reflect change in bowl game status.
The end is near. The season is mercifully over but there will be other conclusions.
For example, Tennessee was in and out of the Liberty Bowl in no time flat. The Vols accepted an invitation on Sunday. On Monday, they had to withdraw because of virus positives among coaches and players.
Tennessee did an extra round of testing to be certain.
There are other developing situations. Jeremy Pruitt is in the eye of a storm, widespread negative reaction to 3-7. None of the losses were even close enough to be exciting.
So, what do fans know about football? Pruitt expects to remain on the job.
“Absolutely,” he said.
Off to the side is a disturbing report of a UT investigation into possible NCAA recruiting violations and impermissible benefits. If validated, that might become an escape route for changing coaches without paying most of the many-million-dollar buyout.
Then again, maybe it is a false alarm. It is hard to believe a program this bad could be doing much cheating.
Almost hidden among all that was a football game. Tennessee and Texas A&M performed close enough to expectations. The Aggies were favored by 14. They won by 21. It could have been worse.
For the seventh loss, Tennessee reintroduced several flaws that plagued it repeatedly. Pass defense was ineffective. The offense was weaker than usual. It produced 213 yards, low for the year. Running back Eric Gray was unavailable. Harrison Bailey completed six passes for relatively short gains and tight end Jacob Warren’s first touchdown. Bailey got sacked three times and lost another fumble.
Cedric Tillman turned one J.T. Shrout pass into something beautiful.
A 15-yard flag against Deandre Johnson for hands to the face of quarterback Kellen Mond after a third-down incompletion proved very painful. The infraction reactivated a Texas A&M drive that resulted in a pivotal touchdown pass and a 24-13 halftime lead.
There were other unfortunate events. Tennessee had a chance to make the game competitive after Alonte Taylor’s third-quarter goal-line interception and 45-yard runback. The opportunity to reduce the deficit to one possession fizzled. Seniors Josh Palmer and Ty Chandler had back-to-back false-start penalties. Palmer dropped a third-down pass.
For the most part, the Aggies refused to let the Vols play with the football. And the orangemen lacked the muscle to take it. The Maroon Goons cuffed them around. Aggie offensive linemen chose that intimidating nickname.
The visitors maintained possession for more than 44 of the 60 playing minutes. They ran 78 plays and permitted the Vols to try 37. Domination describes that dilemma.
Give this some thought: In the past 20 years, in all of college football, just 12 teams have run fewer plays in a game.
Vols didn’t get many stops. Aggies punted once. They went up and down the field and wore out the Tennessee defense, physically and mentally. The visitors outgained the Vols, 497 to 213. They had 15 more first downs. Tennessee rushed for just 24 yards.
Defensive Vols were busy. Henry To’o To’o had 13 tackles. Quavaris Crouch and Jaylen McCollough had 11 each.
As you know, Pruitt’s third season did not go as expected. He had talented newcomers, a crowd of returning starters and the veteran quarterback, thought to be a plus.
Tennessee defeated South Carolina and Missouri to stretch the misleading winning streak to eight. Six consecutive setbacks tied a school record. There was a pattern of second-half errors and collapses. The home loss to Kentucky was really ugly.
Jarrett Guarantano, one of the toughest quarterbacks in Tennessee history, caught much of the blame. Pruitt, slow to address that primary problem, fired the defensive line coach. Winless Vanderbilt stopped the losing streak.
Remaining drama is no better than soap opera re-runs.
Regarding the threat of NCAA complications, Pruitt said: “I hadn’t seen no article or anything like that. Anytime in college football or college athletics, you have typical compliance stuff. That’s all I know.”
Guarantano entered the transfer portal and offered up a classy goodbye, prefaced by, “Thank you for allowing a kid from Lodi, N.J., to live out his dream of playing SEC football.”
The quiet one, athletics director Phillip Fulmer, will analyze and evaluate the season and that gosh-awful spring contract extension he granted Pruitt. He will compare the cost of total staff buyouts against the cost of erosion and gradual decline.
Disposing of Jeremy for losing would be an admission that he made the wrong hire.
Fulmer will listen carefully to university leadership and big donors, talk with Pruitt about what he might do differently to save himself, then dust off his telescope and try to see the future. That will include a prediction of ticket and popcorn sales and financial recovery.
Eventually he will share his findings. Sometime after that, we’ll know what is really happening.
Meanwhile, skip the Hugh Freeze talk and thoughts of winning at any cost. Stalwarts for honesty and ethics, the Robert R. Neylands and Andy Holts of our world, would turn over in their graves.
Marvin West welcomes reader comments or questions. His address is firstname.lastname@example.org