If there’s one thing that’s been consistent this year about Tennessee, it’s been their inconsistency.
The Vols have been nothing if not inconsistent in Year One under Jeremy Pruitt. It’s not an indictment on Pruitt or his coaching staff; the Vols’ players have just been a very up-and-down team this year. That’s to be expected from a relatively inexperienced team and a first-time head coach, however.
But UT’s inconsistency has been predictable, at least.
Tennessee started off the season getting shellacked by West Virginia, losing by 26 points. They would follow that up by scoring on offense, defense, and special teams en route to a 59-3 victory over FCS opponent ETSU. The next week, though uninspiring, was a 24-0 victory over UTEP in which Tennessee’s defense played effectively and the offense totaled over 500 yards and would’ve had more points if not for costly turnovers.
Then came the Florida game.
The Vols imploded against the Gators, turning the ball over six times and giving Florida short fields time and time again. The Gators would hand Tennessee their second 26-point loss of the season.
Against Georgia, the Vols would suffer another 26-point defeat, but this one was different than the previous two. Tennessee hung tight against the Bulldogs and cut UGA’s lead to 24-12 early in the fourth quarter. But then Georgia put together a 13-play drive that drained seven and a half minutes off the clock to go up by three scores again, and a Jeremy Banks fumble gave the ball right back to the Bulldogs. Georgia then sealed away the game with their final touchdown.
Following that loss, Tennessee would go into their bye week. Then they would come out and play one of their best games of the season in a 30-24 upset victory over then-No. 21 Auburn. Jarrett Guarantano set career-highs with his 328 passing yards on 21-of-32 passing, and Tennessee’s defense forced several Tiger turnovers.
Tennessee would follow up that game with a brutal loss to Alabama. Nobody really expected the Vols to compete with the Crimson juggernaut in that game, but it was over by the first quarter after the Tide jumped out to a 28-0 lead in the opening frame. Alabama went on to win 58-21, scoring the most points by either team in the historic rivalry.
After that, the Vols went on the road and played much better overall against South Carolina, but Tennessee’s defense couldn’t stop the Gamecock rushing attack and their up-tempo offense. After leading for most of the game, Tennessee relinquished the lead late in the fourth quarter, and the Vols couldn’t respond to South Carolina’s offense.
It was another loss, but the Vols played better than they did the previous week. And many fans were hoping November would be Tennessee’s month.
After that improved performance against the Gamecocks, Tennessee came out and had their least impressive effort of the season. The Vols trudged their way to a 14-3 win over Charlotte, and the team never seemed interested or bothered during the game. Fans were wondering if the game against the 49ers was a sign of things to come for the rest of the season, hoping that the Vols’ difficult schedule to begin the year hadn’t taken its toll on the team.
Their fears would be temporarily dashed the following week.
Tennessee dominated then-No. 11 Kentucky from start to finish in Neyland Stadium the next week, winning in impressive fashion by a score of 24-7. The Wildcats seemed out-matched, out-schemed, and out-played. The Vols played their most complete game of the season in that contest, and many fans and media members alike were wondering if Tennessee had it in them to finish out the month of November on a four-game winning streak.
Alas, the Vols’ predictable inconsistency reared its head once again.
Missouri waltzed into Knoxville, beat up the Vols, and took their lunch money en route to a 50-17 beat down. Saturday’s loss marked the second straight year in which the Tigers handed Tennessee a 50-17 defeat.
Last year, that loss spelled the end for the Vols’ head coach. This year, it provides UT’s new coach with an opportunity.
If Tennessee continues to follow the pattern they’ve shown all season, then their regular season finale against Vanderbilt should see an improved performance by the team. But this season has also shown that improvement from week-to-week doesn’t always guarantee a victory. The Vols looked better against Georgia than they did the previous week against Florida, but they didn’t get the win. Tennessee played better against South Carolina than they did against Alabama, but both those games were losses as well.
Good performance, bad performance. Good effort, bad effort. The Vols have developed a pattern through 11 games this season, and it’s unlikely they’ll break that chain next weekend when they take on Vanderbilt. But a bounce-back performance might not equal a victory, especially given the recent nature of Tennessee’s series against the Commodores.
The only way Tennessee can fix this consistency issue is through recruiting and maintaining coherence on the coaching staff for a few years. Until then, Vol fans are going to have to suffer through the roller coaster of emotion that is Tennessee football.