Eight days ago, Tennessee had cracked the top 15 of the national rankings and sat tied with Notre Dame for the nation’s longest winning streak among Power-5 teams with eight consecutive victories.
Suddenly, Jeremy Pruitt’s Vols are registering historic marks – in the wrong direction. Tennessee’s first loss at home to border rival Kentucky on Saturday also became the Vols’ first loss inside Neyland Stadium to the Wildcats in almost 36 years and proved to be the program’s worst-ever loss as a ranked team to an unranked team.
Kentucky vaulted on top 17-0, after a pair of pick-sixes thrown by Vols fifth-year senior quarterback Jarrett Guarantano, and never led by fewer than 10 points through the game’s final 30 minutes in a 34-7 throttling of Tennessee that matched Kentucky’s largest win against the Vols since 1935.
It was less than a month ago that Tennessee revealed it had agreed to a contract extension and raise for third-year coach Jeremy Pruitt, a move that had been negotiated since the Vols closed their 2019 season on a six-game winning streak that included a Gator Bowl win against Indiana.
Now, the Vols have lost two consecutive games – at Georgia and to Kentucky – by a combined 50 points. They’ve been outscored in their last six quarters, 61-7.
Consider this sequence: in 14 offensive plays against Kentucky, the Vols’ quarterbacks lost a fumble, threw three interceptions and two of the picks were returned for touchdowns.
First, Guarantano fumbled; on the sixth offensive play, the fifth-year senior threw a pick-six, and on the 12th play, Guarantano did the same thing. Two snaps later, after Guarantano had been replaced by redshirt-sophomore J.T. Shrout, Shrout threw a late, ill-advised pass to the sideline that Kentucky intercepted and turned into a field goal.
And those calamities came just 24 hours after it was revealed that Tennessee’s Pruitt was fined $100,000 for improperly wearing his protective face-guard last week at Georgia, when Pruitt kept the gaiter-like device pulled down below his mouth and face for essentially the entire game.
Postgame, Pruitt touted the Vols’ low COVID-19 positive test numbers when asked about the fine, which the SEC previously announced will be deducted from its member teams’ annual year-end revenue distribution.
“One thing that we’ve really tried to do is protect everybody in our organization, starting with our players first,” Pruitt said. “I think with Dr. (Chris) Klenck’s guidance, he’s done a really nice job educating all of us on the proper procedures that we need to follow. … Probably if you look at probably the numbers, nobody knows the numbers because nobody knows what the other team has within our conference. I would say, just based off what I hear, we have probably had the least amount of COVID as anybody. Now we had a ton of contact tracing.
“But I can tell you, I wore my mask wrong, just to get back to answering the question. I’ve worn it the right way, I’ve tried to be a good leader in our organization and do things the way it’s supposed to be done. And during that game (at Georgia) I had problems communicating and I pulled my mask down and I didn’t realize it until after the game was over with. Obviously it’s not something that I wanted to do. And something that, it’s not how I’ve been practicing wearing my mask. I’ve been doing it the right way. I felt like I needed to find something that possibly didn’t limit my communication skills during the game. So I went with this mask here and it seemed to work a lot better. So I’ll probably stick with it.”
COVID-19 fines and Saturday’s loss aside, the big picture shows a more troubling trend for Tennessee under Pruitt: the Vols have lost 11 games to Power-5 competition by at least 23 points in 29 games since Pruitt assumed the reins.
Those losses are, from 2018 to present, by margin: 22 points to Alabama (2019), 23 points to Georgia (2020), 25 points to Vanderbilt (2018), 26 points to West Virginia, Florida, Georgia (2018), 27 points to Kentucky (2020), 29 points to Georgia (2019), 31 points to Florida (2019), 33 points to Missouri (2018), 37 points to Alabama (2018).
In sum, that’s 11 Power-5 losses by an average of 28 points per game.
There is talent on Tennessee’s roster, largely because Pruitt has generated nationally ranked signing classes of No. 13 and No. 10 in his first two full hauls from 2019-20; Pruitt salvaged a No. 21 class in 2018.
The schedule remaining also affords opportunities for the Vols to turn things around. They have home games remaining against Alabama, Texas A&M and Florida; they have road trips to Arkansas, Auburn and Vanderbilt.
They just have to stop trending in the wrong direction.