By Jim Steele
The Tennessee fan base is equal parts amusing and concerning.
This time, just over two years ago, this Tennessee football program was mired in mediocrity, steeped in scandal and had become a program nobody in his right mind wanted to touch. Jeremy Pruitt, and his McDonald’s bags, made the rounds on internet memes.
Let’s face it. This program had no pizazz. The offense was boring. It had lost to the likes of Georgia State at home, despite recovering to win the Gator Bowl over Indiana. Then came the awful COVID season. Pruitt and his crew, it was discovered, were accused of malfeasance.
This led to a total house cleaning of the Tennessee program.
Gone was Pruitt, his staff, and athletic director Phillip Fulmer, who hired Pruitt, not to mention president Joe DiPietro and chancellor Bev Davenport. I think Fulmer’s tenure as AD will sully, albeit slightly, his legacy at UT.
So the Vols brought Danny White on board as their athletic director, fresh from Central Florida, to straighten out this mess. After a frustrating search, he reached out to his old pal Josh Heupel and offered him short of the moon and stars to take this beleaguered program on. After several assurances, Heupel made the move to Knoxville.
So here we are, 21 wins and into the third year of Heupel’s tenure. This team is fresh off of an Orange Bowl victory over seventh-ranked Clemson (read that again) and an 11-win season. Who on earth thought that was possible, given where this program was not too terribly long ago? Oh, by the way, quarterback Joe Milton was Orange Bowl MVP, though one could have made a case for defensive lineman Aaron Beasley and his 12 tackles.
Understandably, Tennessee fans are a bit distraught after a humbling loss to an average Florida team with a beleaguered coach. Maybe this win in the Swamp over the Vols two weeks ago added some time to his expiration date. Time will tell.
Meanwhile, Tennessee is off to a 3-1 start. Should they be 4-0? Some would argue yes. Florida exposed Tennessee as a team that is lacking on its offensive front and secondary. Sure, some argue that Tennessee had three linemen out in the Florida game, but what is it everybody in the SEC says about that? Next man up?
Saturday, Tennessee righted the ship against an allegedly decent Texas-San Antonio team. Yes, the Vols won by a lopsided score, as they should have. But, like with the Virginia victory, I still had questions. Quarterback Milton was better, probably because the UTSA defensive line isn’t anywhere near the caliber of Florida’s. Still Milton missed on some easy passes. Some say that may be because of injury late in the game. Still, Milton answered the bell and stayed in there, despite being banged up.
I just get the idea that Tennessee just isn’t as good as last year’s team. I thought, going into this season, the Vols might flirt with 10 or 11 wins. Now, I feel Tennessee might be lucky to win eight. There is too much inconsistency, even against Austin Peay and UTSA. There are too many penalties, too many dropped passes and too many missed tackles.
I wonder if Tennessee is in a transitional phase. The new guys are getting their battle scars while the guys from the old regime are starting to thin out. There isn’t the swagger we saw last year. There isn’t the consistency we saw last year. The explosive offense seems to be dormant.
If we want to look for rainbows and silver linings, Tennessee did win against a two-time Conference USA champion and did so easily. Milton was serviceable at quarterback and the running game may have found a rising star in Dylan Sampson. There may not be enough up front or in the secondary to make a difference, but the Vols have the potential to get better, as we saw this week.
In spite of some questions, this was a better effort. At this point, that’s all Tennessee can ask for.
Jim Steele is a correspondent for Magic Valley Publishing.