The Vols have had their fair share of difficult season-opening match-ups over the years. But generally, Tennessee opens up their football season with a “cupcake” opponent more often than not. That’s been especially true when it comes to a UT coach’s very first game with Tennessee.
But that’s not the case this year.
Jeremy Pruitt’s first game as head coach of the Vols will be against one of Tennessee’s tougher season-opening opponents in a while. West Virginia is expected to be a top-20 or possibly even top-15 team when the preseason AP Poll is released, and there’s good reason for optimism in Morgantown. The Mountaineers return Heisman candidate Will Grier at quarterback and almost all of their productive wide receivers from last season. They’ve also added several talented grad transfers on both sides of the ball to complement the talent they already have.
Defense will be still be a question mark for West Virginia, but their offense will arguably be the most explosive the Vols will face this season.
Pruitt’s first test as Tennessee’s head coach won’t be an easy one. And it begs the question: Is Jeremy Pruitt’s first game as head coach of the Vols actually the toughest first game any UT head coach has ever had?
A look back in history says “yes.” And it’s really not even that close.
Dating all the way back to General Neyland’s first game as Tennessee’s head coach in 1926, no UT head coach has had a tougher first game on paper than what Pruitt will be facing this season. In fact, no other UT head coach has ever started his Tennessee career facing off against a ranked opponent in his first game at the helm.
The most talented teams that Vol head coaches have faced in their first game with the program have been Johnny Majors’ first game in 1977 against Cal (the Golden Bears weren’t ranked but beat UT 27-17 and ended up going 7-4), Bowden Wyatt’s first game in 1955 against Mississippi State (the Bulldogs won 13-7 and finished the season 6-4) and Harvey Robinson’s first game in 1953 that was also against Mississippi State (the Vols lost that game 26-0 and the Bulldogs finished 5-2-3).
Otherwise, Tennessee’s head coaches have faced off against the likes of Carson-Newman, Richmond, UT-Chattanooga, UT-Martin and Southwest Louisiana to start their tenures at Tennessee.
The only game that really comes close to Pruitt’s first contest against West Virginia doesn’t even really count because it’s only included on a technicality. Robert Neyland came back from military service in 1946 to coach again after serving for several years, and his “first game” as the Vols’ head coach in 1946 was against Georgia Tech. Tennessee won that game 13-9, and Tech wound up going 9-2 that season and finished the year No. 11 in the polls. They weren’t ranked to start the season, but they proved to be a very formidable foe throughout the year.
But, once again, that game doesn’t actually count since it wasn’t Neyland’s actual first game with Tennessee. But it’s still worth at least pointing out.
Time will tell just how good West Virginia will be this season. They could end up being overblown and barely end up bowl eligible by season’s end. Or they could live up to the hype and win 10 or more games this season.
Regardless, on paper this match-up is easily the most difficult season-opening game any first-year Tennessee head coach has faced in the last century. And Pruitt is having to do so coming off the worst season in program history as well.
Here’s the full rundown of the first games of every Tennessee head coach dating back to General Neyland.
Robert Neyland – 1926 vs. Carson-Newman (W 13-0), 1946 vs. Georgia Tech (W 13-9, Tech went 9-2 and finished No. 11 but weren’t ranked to start)
W.H. Britton – 1935 vs. Southwestern (W 20-0)
John Barnhill – 1941 vs. Furman (W 32-6)
Harvey Robinson – 1953 vs. Mississippi State (L 26-0, Bulldogs went 5-2-3)
Bowden Wyatt – 1955 vs. Mississippi State (L 13-7, Bulldogs went 6-4)
Jim McDonald – 1963 vs. Richmond (W 34-6)
Doug Dickey – 1964 vs. UTC (W 10-6)
Bill Battle – 1970 vs. SMU (W 28-3)
Johnny Majors – 1977 vs. California (L 27-17, Cal went 7-4)
Phillip Fulmer – 1992 vs. SW Louisiana (W 38-3), 1993 vs. Louisiana Tech (W 50-0)
Lane Kiffin – 2009 vs. Western Kentucky (W 63-7)
Derek Dooley – 2010 vs. UT-Martin (W 50-0)
Butch Jones – 2013 vs. Austin Peay (W 45-0)