Even though Tennessee finished with a losing record last season, there are several positives that can be taken from Jeremy Pruitt's head-coaching debut. For starters, the Volunteers improved their win total by one (5-7 vs. 4-8) compared to the end of the Butch Jones era in 2017.
More importantly, Pruitt has quickly gotten Tennessee's program back in shape and is building a foundation for future success, as evidenced by the top-15 recruiting class he just signed. In the grand scheme of things, however, there's only one measuring stick that truly matters — wins.
While things have been worse (Derek Dooley years anyone?) that doesn't mean Vol Nation isn't any less impatient. While no one is expecting Pruitt to lead Tennessee to the top of the SEC East standings this season, at least getting back to a bowl game would be a fine starting point.
That means picking up at least six wins, a level that Tennessee has reached just three times in the last eight seasons. Fortunately for the Vols, the schedule appears to set up a little more favorably, at least on paper. There is no Power 5 team on the non-conference slate, as Tennessee opens with three games at home against Georgia State, BYU and FCS member Chattanooga and also hosts UAB in early November.
Life in the SEC is never easy, but the Vols may have caught a break as Auburn rotates off in favor of Mississippi State as the other cross-division matchup. Yes, Alabama still looms (and that game is in Tuscaloosa this year), as do Georgia, Florida and the rest of the East. But with eight total home games and a seemingly softer non-conference slate, fans are probably expecting Pruitt to get Tennessee back to a bowl game, at minimum.
So with that goal in mind, we asked Athlon editors and contributors this simple question — do Pruitt and company take another step forward in 2019 or will it be another year of sitting at home come December?
Will Tennessee Make a Bowl Game in 2019?
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
Yes, I think Tennessee will make a bowl game in 2019. The Volunteers should go 4-0 in non-conference play and have winnable games in SEC action against Vanderbilt, South Carolina and Mississippi State at home. Coach Jeremy Pruitt’s team isn’t ready to finish in the top 25 next fall. However, this team should show some progress. Quarterback Jarrett Guarantano is back and will benefit from the addition of new play-caller Jim Chaney. The supporting cast of skill talent is solid, but Tennessee’s biggest concern remains its offensive line. The secondary should be the strength of the defense, allowing time for Pruitt and new coordinator Derrick Ansley to find the right mix up front. Pruitt still has a lot of work to do in Knoxville, but there are plenty of reasons to expect more improvement in the on-field product in 2019.
Mark Ross (@AthlonMarkR)
It's been a struggle for Tennessee recently but it seems that Jeremy Pruitt has things trending in the right direction. He just inked a top-15 recruiting class to add to the talent that's already on the roster, and he also upgraded the coaching staff by bringing back Jim Chaney (offensive coordinator) and fan favorite Tee Martin (passing game coordinator). That doesn't mean this team still doesn't have some question marks, especially when it comes to the offensive and defensive lines. But a home-friendly schedule should work in the Vols' favor as the Pruitt project takes another step forward with a return to the postseason. But don't be surprised if UT is one of the last teams on the bowl invitation list (i.e., just six wins).
Kevin McGuire (@KevinOnCFB)
While Tennessee is still a program looking to do some rebuilding to being a contender in the SEC East, there is no excuse for the Volunteers not to go bowling this season. A 3-0 start should be expected to start the year and the Vols get a bye week before their final two games against Missouri and Vanderbilt. Getting UAB at home in early November gives Tennessee a schedule that can see six wins as the bare minimum, and anything else should be considered a failure.
Antwan Staley (@antwanstaley)
Yes, Tennessee has struggled during the last decade. But if anyone can right the ship and get things going again in Knoxville, it is Jeremy Pruitt.
There were signs that Tennessee was moving in the right direction even during last season's 5-7 showing. The Volunteers upset nationally ranked Auburn on the road and also knocked off a ranked Kentucky team at home. However, they finished the season with back-to-back losses to Missouri and Vanderbilt.
Not only do the Volunteers get back Jarrett Guarantano as their starting quarterback, but they also return running backs Ty Chandler and Tim Jordan, who combined for 1,152 rushing yards last season, along with receivers Marquez Callaway, Josh Palmer, and Jauan Jennings.
Although Tennessee travels to both Florida and Alabama, the schedule is favorable, so six wins or more isn't out of the question. My prediction is 7-5 for the Volunteers in 2019.
Ryan Wright (@RyanWrightRNG)
Jeremey Pruitt’s first season in Knoxville was salvaged with surprise wins over two ranked teams, then- No. 21 Auburn and No. 12 Kentucky. As for this season, the first three games (Georgia State, BYU, and Chattanooga) are all at Neyland Stadium and should be wins. The other non-conference game against UAB should be a fourth win, even though the Blazers posted an 11-3 season in 2018. The only other game Tennessee was close to winning a year ago was a 27-24 decision on the road to South Carolina. The Volunteers get the Gamecocks at home this year; so that could be a much-needed fifth win.
The team needs to close strong with a fairly favorable November schedule — the aforementioned Blazers, road trips to Kentucky and Missouri, and a home game against Vanderbilt. Kentucky and Missouri are in transition both having lost key talent, but are no rollovers and winning on the road in the SEC is no picnic. College football fans may not realize it, but Vanderbilt has a three-game winning streak going against the Vols. Pruitt needs this victory to close out the season to be bowl eligible, or possibly increase the luster of a bowl invitation, and to keep the fan base on his side. I'm saying he gets there, but just barely, with a 6-6 record.
Rob McVey (@Rob_UTVOLS)
The Volunteers came up just one win short of making a bowl appearance in Jeremy Pruitt’s first season as head coach. And all signs are pointing to marked improvement in year two of the Pruitt era. Tennessee returns an abundance of experience on both sides of the football. The roster is in better shape overall. The coaching staff has been upgraded. The schedule is more manageable than last season. And returning players appear to be reaping the benefits of a full year in Tennessee’s strength and conditioning program under Craig Fitzgerald. Question marks remain, particularly along the offensive and defensive lines. However, six wins and a bowl game should be easily attainable for the Vols in 2019. Anything less would be considered a major underachievement under the circumstances.
Nicholas Ian Allen (@NicholasIAllen)
First of all, I’m a Jeremy Pruitt believer. There were obviously some growing pains during his first season as a college head coach, and his personality probably won’t ever make him a media darling. But Pruitt has a strong track record, and he's great defensively. The fact Nick Saban hired him multiple times is a good sign.
New offensive coordinator Jim Chaney also seems to be a good fit philosophically. He helped develop quarterback Jake Fromm at Georgia, which makes me think Jarrett Guarantano should benefit. Guarantano, who earned rave reviews this spring, has plenty of experienced weapons. The biggest question is whether or not the offensive line improves. It was arguably one of the worst units in the country last year.
A team this talented should go bowling, without question. Players on the Tennessee roster currently have an average 0.8879 rating in the 247Sports Composite, which ranks seventh in the conference and third in the SEC East behind Georgia (.9191) and Florida (.8966). Of course, talent has rarely been the issue at Tennessee. Instead, the Volunteers haven’t developed players as well as the best SEC programs this decade. That should change under this coaching staff.
The Vols should be favored in all four non-conference games, but BYU and UAB can be tricky. Tennessee draws Mississippi State and must travel to Tuscaloosa, but plays South Carolina at home. The final three games of the year (at Kentucky, at Missouri following a bye, and home against Vanderbilt) will likely decide the Vols’ offseason fate. If Tennessee can win two of those three — and I believe it should win them all — Pruitt will have the Vols back in a bowl game. Nine wins are possible.