Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt doesn’t mince his words. He says what he means, and he means what he says. It’s a breath of fresh air from UT’s previous head coach, and Vol fans have been very welcoming of Pruitt’s honesty.
On Saturday, Pruitt made a comment in an off-hand way that I’m sure he didn’t intend to grab headlines. But the comment struck me as very telling about his current team, and I think they’re spot-on about the talent level and overall effort and development of his current roster.
After Tennessee’s lackluster 14-3 win over Conference USA opponent Charlotte, Pruitt opened up his post-game press conference by praising Charlotte. Pruitt said that the 49ers were a good team, and he credited their defense for why UT’s offense struggled so mightily.
But it was what he said at the end of his opening statement that caught my attention.
“Anybody can beat anybody any week. It kinda talks to the parity in college football and how many good football players are out there and how well-coached every team is,” Pruitt stated after the game. “We beat what I think is a pretty good football team. I think we’re very evenly matched. We found a way to win, and I’m glad we did.”
Pruitt saying Charlotte and Tennessee were “evenly matched” on Saturday was absolutely right. But it wasn’t the compliment to Charlotte that it should’ve been; in fact, I think it was more an indictment on the current state of Tennessee’s football program.
I don’t think Pruitt himself was making a sideways remark about his team. That’s not really his style. Pruitt usually tells it like it is and doesn’t beat around the bush. But in this instance, whether he meant to or not, his comments spoke directly to what kind of talent and development UT’s roster has right now.
If you had switched the uniforms of the two teams before the game on Saturday, you couldn’t have told which football program was a middling Conference USA team and which was a once-proud SEC program. The difference between the two teams in terms of execution and skill level seemed minimal on Saturday, and for arguably the first time this season, Tennessee showed regression across the board (at least on offense) in a full game.
Charlotte averaged 3.94 yards per play on 62 plays on Saturday. Tennessee averaged 4.09 yards per play on 47 offensive plays. The 49ers converted on 33.3 percent of their third downs. The Vols converted 33.3 percent of their third downs. Charlotte gave up three sacks and eight tackles for loss. Tennessee gave up two sacks and nine tackles for loss.
See what I mean?
Tennessee undoubtedly has more talent on paper than Charlotte. According to the 247Sports team talent composite rankings, the Vols have two five-star players and 33 four-star players currently on their roster. Charlotte has no four or five-star players according to that data.
But that’s on paper. UT’s players certainly haven’t been coached or developed up to standard over the last three years, and that showed on Saturday big time.
There’s a good chance Saturday’s performance had more to do with Tennessee’s players overlooking Charlotte and looking ahead to a big match-up with a ranked Kentucky team next weekend. That’s very likely. But UT should be able to overlook a Conference USA team and still beat them by several touchdowns.
The Vols’ offensive line is a patchwork unit at this point, and several of the players that are starting or playing significant time are either first-year players or players that still need more development. The offensive line is clearly UT’s biggest weakness, but it’s not the only one. Tennessee is still too slow, too undisciplined, and too undeveloped to compete with even the middle of the pack of the SEC, let alone the top teams.
Charlotte is a good team. They came into Saturday’s contest with the No. 6 rushing defense in all of college football, and their play on Saturday only helped those stats. They’re well-coached, and they’re showing significant improvement from last season. The 49ers went 1-11 last season and are currently two wins away from bowl eligibility with three regular season games remaining.
But there’s a difference between a good Conference USA team and a good SEC team. And right now, the Vols barely look like a good Conference USA team.