Before taking over as Tennessee’s head coach, Jeremy Pruitt wasn’t used to losing a lot of games as a college coach.
In five years as a defensive coordinator at Florida State, Georgia, and Alabama, Pruitt only experienced eight losses in 69 games he coached in. In his first year as a head coach at Tennessee, he’s experienced six losses in 11 games.
Typically this time of year, Pruitt has been on a team that’s been getting ready for a conference championship game or positioning themselves for a national title. This year marks the first time in a while that neither of those is the case.
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“I talked about it to our staff this morning, this is probably the first time in a long time for me that early on in the season we weren’t participating or playing for playoff implications or a championship in the league,” Pruitt said during his Monday press conference. “I said before, this game (against Vanderbilt) means a whole lot to a whole lot of people, and probably since the Florida loss or the Georgia loss, we’ve been playing for pride.”
Tennessee was essentially eliminated from any sort of SEC East contention after losing 38-12 to Georgia to end the month of September. The Vols were never expected to compete in the East this year, but that’s a stark contrast from the circumstances Pruitt left behind to take over at UT.
This time last year, Pruitt was gearing up his Alabama defense for a pivotal Iron Bowl match-up with Auburn. Now, he’s trying to help his Tennessee team scrap and claw their way to a bowl game.
But according to Pruitt, “playing for pride” is important all it’s own.
“To me, you can talk about winning a championship or whatever, but pride is about as important as it gets,” Pruitt added.
Just playing for pride may be somewhat new to Pruitt, but it’s certainly not to Vol fans. Aside from the 2016 season, Tennessee hasn’t played in many meaningful games in late October or in the entire month of November. The Vols have been in the middle of a division race exactly one time in the last decade, and that was in the 2016 season. The 2015 Vols finished second in the East, but they were well behind Florida in the East standings that season.
Aside from those two years, Tennessee hasn’t finished better than fourth since the SEC expanded to 14 teams, and their best finish besides the 2016 and 2015 seasons over the last decade has been when they placed third in the division in 2009.
Although the Vols may not be playing for a division title or gearing up for a conference championship game right now, their postseason hopes are still on the line. And Pruitt sees the value in that.
“I think (getting to a bowl game) is important for our players,” Pruitt stated. “It’s going to be important for our senior class to end with a win against Vanderbilt. I think it’s important for everyone associated with our program to raise our level of play. We’ve had opportunities to do that a couple of times this year, and in my opinion, have not necessarily played at our best. That’s on us as coaches to get everybody in our program to be at their best. It’s a great opportunity for us.
“It’s a chance to possibly have a winning record, and anytime you have positive things going on, I think it’s going to help you in recruiting.”
Since the end of the 2007 season, The Vols have missed out on a bowl game just as often as they’ve made one. Tennessee has earned a bowl berth five times (2009, 2010, 2014, 2015, 2016) and has failed to qualify for a bowl five times (2008, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2017).
Making a bowl game is no longer a given at Tennessee like it once was, and Pruitt understands that ending the regular season with a win and getting to the postseason would be an accomplishment for his team.
If playing for pride isn’t enough, then playing for the postseason certainly should be. And Pruitt’s first Tennessee squad will be playing for both on Saturday against Vanderbilt.