The Volunteers head into 2020 with optimism
Phillip Fulmer walked off the field of the Georgia Dome on the night of December 1, 2007, amid a cloud of disappointment. Fulmer, then the head football coach at Tennessee, had just watched No. 5 LSU rally from a 14–13 deficit in the SEC Championship Game to beat the 14th-ranked Volunteers, 21–14, for the conference title. The Vols had been vying for their first SEC championship since 1998, but they would ultimately settle for a 10–4 record, a No. 12 final AP ranking and a win over Wisconsin in the Outback Bowl.
Tennessee was accustomed to higher glory during Fulmer’s reign. In his 17 seasons in Knoxville, the Vols went 152–52, won the inaugural Bowl Championship Series title in 1998 and made five appearances in the SEC Championship Game, winning the crown in 1997 and ’98. But in the 12-plus years since that appearance in Atlanta, much has changed for Tennessee football.
Jeremy Pruitt, the Volunteers’ current head coach, is the program’s fourth since the university forced Fulmer out in 2008. Three university presidents and four athletic directors — including Fulmer, the current AD at Tennessee — have rotated through the university during that span.
Meanwhile, the once-proud Volunteers are 75–75 overall (33–63 SEC) since ’07 and have yet to make another appearance in the SEC Championship Game.
“The main issue that Tennessee has had since [Fulmer’s firing] has been a lack of stability at all levels of the Tennessee athletic department,” says Mark Nagi, a former sports anchor in Knoxville and author of Decade of Dysfunction: The Road to Tennessee’s Crazy Coaching Search. “Football drives the engine; that’s the one everyone points to. But there was so much uncertainty from top to bottom in that department. … You just never felt like everybody in that department was pushing in the same direction.”
Today, Tennessee fans are cautiously optimistic about the immediate future of the program. Fulmer is the school’s athletic director following the ouster of former AD John Currie and a coaching search that featured a fan revolt when UT nearly hired then-Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano. Despite Fulmer’s lack of collegiate administrative experience, his hiring brought a calming sense of familiarity to a riled-up fan base. Six days after he became AD in 2017, Fulmer hired Pruitt off Nick Saban’s Alabama staff.
The 2019 season — Pruitt’s second in Knoxville — was a case study in resiliency. The Vols opened the year with a stunning 38–30 home loss to Georgia State. They followed with a heartbreaking 29–26 double-overtime loss to BYU to begin the year 0–2.
Tennessee would ultimately fall to 1–4, including a 34–3 beating at the hands of then-No. 9 Florida. Pruitt’s coaching obituary at Tennessee was, by most accounts, writing itself in just his second season.
But the second half of the season was a different story for UT. The Vols won seven of their last eight games, including their final four SEC contests. They earned a berth in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl and staged an improbable rally to beat Indiana, 23–22, to finish the year 8–5. Tennessee scored two touchdowns in a 30-second span to erase a 13-point deficit with less than five minutes left in the fourth quarter.
Tennessee somehow managed to clinch an eight-win season despite its early obstacles. Pruitt says his team defined itself by its mettle down the stretch.
“You really don’t find out a whole lot about yourself or a team until you face adversity,” Pruitt said after the Gator Bowl. “And we’ve faced a lot this year. A lot of it was self-inflicted, but still, it is what it is.”
Tennessee feels the wind in its sails as it enters the 2020 season. But even the most ardent Vols fans would admit they’ve seen this movie before. Lane Kiffin’s lone season at Tennessee (2009) showed promise with a near-upset of Alabama, but he bolted town after one season for USC and left little more than NCAA violations in his wake. The Vols found themselves ranked and hosting ESPN’s College GameDay for the Florida game in their third season under Derek Dooley in 2012. However, the Vols lost to the Gators and finished 5–7, and Dooley was replaced by Jim Chaney before the season finale.
Butch Jones seemingly had things figured out at Tennessee when he went from a 5–7 season in 2013 to a 9–4 season in 2015. The next fall, the Vols were picked to win the SEC East for the first time since the Fulmer regime. But they squandered a 5–0 start and finished the regular season 8–4, with a deflating season-ending loss at Vanderbilt, costing the program a berth in the Sugar Bowl. Jones was fired the next year after a 4–6 start.
The latest climb up the Big Orange roller coaster takes place with Pruitt at the helm. The coach has recruited well — his latest class was ranked in the top 10 by every major recruiting service — and player development has become a foundational element after falling off in recent years. Pruitt has endeared himself to the Tennessee faithful with the program’s remarkable turnaround in 2019, and Vols fans are desperate to return to the upper echelon of college football. More coaching turnover is not on Tennessee’s wish list.
Still, more will be expected from Pruitt in Year Three, and many say that the Tennessee job is more difficult now than during Fulmer’s era. Monster TV contracts have ballooned the SEC into a money-making behemoth in which every school now has the resources to succeed. Annual opponents Alabama and Georgia are on sturdier ground now than during the 1990s and early 2000s, and even second-tier SEC teams — South Carolina, Kentucky, Mississippi State, etc. — are investing in their programs like never before. Plus, regional non-conference powers like Clemson are now angling for the same recruits as Tennessee in the South.
“Tennessee has everything you need to win,” says Josh Ward, the co-host of Sports 180 on Sports Radio WMNL in Knoxville who has covered UT since the Fulmer years. “But right now, Jeremy Pruitt has Tennessee football in a position where it has to play catch-up against programs where, you could say, those jobs are just as good or better. The state of Florida, Georgia, Alabama is obviously better than Tennessee right now. You can do a good job and not be good enough because of the competition you have to face.
“Fans will be patient for a certain amount of time. But anybody who keeps up with the SEC knows more will be expected from Tennessee in the next couple years.”
This past February, Tennessee hosted a Signing Day Celebration in Knoxville for fans and donors. The Vols had just put a bow on the No. 10 signing class in the country, per 247Sports, which included heralded quarterback Harrison Bailey. A veteran group of returning players was only weeks away from beginning spring practice ahead of the 2020 season (before the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of spring drills). The vibe around the program was decidedly positive.
During one moment in the evening, Fulmer took the mic and ignited the crowd by declaring, “The Vols are back!”
Tennessee fans have heard that before. Now, only time will tell if Fulmer is right.
— Written by Zac Ellis for Athlon Sports' 2020 SEC Football Preview