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We answer your best questions about Tennessee athletics and anything else in our weekly mailbag, Insider Mailing.
“Is there any way Tennessee ever gets back to prominence? A decade of a culture of losing is hard to overcome and it’s really beginning to feel like we never will.” – Jeremy
“Now that we all can see where the team clearly stands. In what year would you realistically say we should see a better, more productive product?” – Kenny
Nathanael: I thought both of these questions asked similar things, and I think my answer to both would’ve been similar enough, so I decided to pair them together. Ben and I discussed Tennessee’s culture problem on the RTI Podcast earlier this week, and I think it’s going to take a few years for UT to finally be able to move on from the Butch Jones era, recover in the strength and conditioning room, and get the right type of talent on the roster. I say in 2020 you’ll finally see something close to what Pruitt and his staff are trying to build, and 2021 will be the year you really get to see a Pruitt-branded Tennessee team. I know that’s not ideal, and Vol fans have heard that kind of talk before. But that’s just how I see it right now.
Ben: At some point, Tennessee will get back to being Tennessee. With the resources it possesses, Tennessee won’t stay down forever. The unfortunate part is that if you’re a fan, it feels like it’s never going to end. Every program in the country goes through a down period, some longer than others. We’re just in the midst of the Vols’ downward spiral.
Personally, I think this is a minimum four-year rebuilding job. The culture of Tennessee football has never been worse than what it is today, and that’s something that can’t be fixed in just two-to-three years. Now just because I think it’s a minimum four-year rebuilding job to get Tennessee back to competing for the SEC East doesn’t mean it should take that long to be competitive. This year, and even next year, there will be games that the Vols struggle to be competitive in. In year three, Tennessee should absolutely be competitive with its rivals.
“So, seeing what we’ve seen to this point, knowing what you know now, what are realistic expectations for the rest of the season? (I think I finally understand why CJP wanted to play the back-up QB so much…)” – Sam
Nathanael: Fair question. I obviously don’t think Tennessee beats Georgia, Auburn, or Alabama, and I don’t think they beat South Carolina either because of how that game falls on the schedule. Tennessee will have just finished playing UGA, Auburn, and Bama in three of the last four weeks, and South Carolina will be coming off a bye week at that point. Charlotte is the next game I think UT can win, and after that? Missouri, Kentucky, and Vandy are far from guarantees. In fact, I think Tennessee loses to Missouri. Kentucky and Vandy will be interesting to see in November, because I wonder how their depth holds up by that point. But honestly, another 4-8 season seems pretty likely. I think 5-7 would be pretty good considering the schedule and where this team is right now.
Ben: Personally, I think 5-7 would be a miracle. Assuming that Tennessee falls to Georgia, Auburn and Alabama, and it beats Charlotte, that leaves the Vols at 3-5. Then it comes down to needing to win three out of four against South Carolina, Kentucky, Missouri and Vanderbilt in order to make a bowl game. I think Tennessee beats one of those four teams, most likely Vanderbilt, but that leaves them at 4-8. South Carolina, Missouri and Kentucky all present problems that directly line up with Tennessee’s weaknesses, making it hard for the Vols to win one of those games. Frankly, 3-9 is on the table, but I think Tennessee gets to 4-8 this season.
“Honestly….. is the issue with Pruitt and Sapp over? Or is it a cancer that is about to spread?” – Brad
Nathanael: I don’t think it will turn into a cancer. I’m not sure about the issue being totally resolved, but for Sapp’s sake, I hope it is. He’s a good player, and the Vols could use his presence on the field in SEC play.
Ben: It could turn into a cancer, but I don’t think it will. Sapp has been playing with a bone bruise in practice, and as a result, he hasn’t necessarily looked good in practice. Under Pruitt, if you don’t perform well in practice, you’re not going to play in the game. I think the situation is over and once Sapp gets healthy, he’ll be a contributor to the defense.
“Why is our OC not mixing the plays at all with the lack of talent we have?” – @The5Lemmons
Nathanael: I honestly don’t think there’s much Tyson Helton can do with the offensive line playing the way they are. I’d like to see a little more ingenuity than we’ve seen so far, but maybe Guarantano is also having troubles learning the playbook. I don’t know that for a fact, but it’s something to consider. Blocking has been so bad in both the run and pass game that it’s made it difficult for Tennessee to get much of a rhythm going. Until the line improves, I’m not really holding a whole lot against Helton. Plus, the offense is still in transition too. These guys were playing a more finesse, spread-option offense this time last year. They aren’t used to the type of physicality being demanded of them right now.
Ben: Helton was too predictable in the first quarter or so with his play-calling. However, I don’t necessarily blame Helton for being a little on the conservative side when the offensive line isn’t doing its job up front. That makes it nearly impossible for anybody to call plays. I would have liked to have seen a few more screens against Florida while rolling Jarrett Guarantano out of the pocket in order to get the defense moving from side-to-side.
“How much of Saturday’s outcome would you put on the coaches?” – Dawson
Nathanael: Not a lot, to be honest. And that’s not because I’m a coach worshipper or anything; I just think Saturday was much more a product of poor execution rather than coaching. I do disagree with some of Tyson Helton’s play-calling on offense, but overall the disastrous performance was more because of bad decision-making and sometimes downright atrocious execution by players. But the coaching staff does deserve some blame.
Ben: Maybe 5-percent? I know for a fact the coaches are teaching the players the right thing to do, they’re just not going out there and executing. Fans like to blame the coaches when a game goes the way it did against Florida because as adults we don’t necessarily want to get on to college kids. But the truth is, against Florida, the players didn’t execute.
Against Georgia, the one thing that wold make me look at the coaches sideways is if Tennessee commits a lot of penalties. That just boils down to having your players ready to play.
“When will JJ Peterson be ready?” – @tjvol49
Nathanael: My best bet would be that the earliest you see him this season is when Tennessee takes on Charlotte to begin November. I don’t really expect him on the field till then.
“The basketball VOLS played with a chip on their shoulder last season. How do you guys expect them to handle the high expectations with all the national attention?” – @bokeck1
Nathanael: Great question. I think Rick Barnes won’t let them get too big of a head and won’t let them get too affected by the pressure. Remember, he used to coach at Texas where high expectations were the norm while he was there. Texas was often ranked inside the top-15 when he was there, so he knows what it’s like. His players at Tennessee don’t know that pressure a whole lot, but they started to get a taste of it in late February and all of March last year. I think they’ll learn from what they did and didn’t do correctly then and apply that to this whole season.
Ben: Absolutely beautifully. There is zero doubt in my head that Rick Barnes will not allow this team to let the preseason hype get to their heads. He’s been in this situation before, and he’s too good of a coach to let that happen. Even without Barnes, I don’t think the expectations and national attention would get to this team. Guys like Admiral Schofield, Grant Williams, Lamonte Turner, Kyle Alexander, Jordan Bowden, and Jordan Bone don’t need to be reminded of what it took to get to this point. This roster is mostly full of guys who were overlooked coming out of high school and partially in college. They’ll continue to play with a chip on their shoulder.