RTI contributor Robert Hughes is the author of this article
“Are you from Tennessee? Because you’re the only ten I see.”
Yes, this is a terrible pickup line. But it also pertains to the University of Tennessee football team according to Tim Rohan’s recent Sports Illustrated article.
In his piece, Rohan chronicles four of college football’s most storied programs: Florida State, UCLA, Nebraska, and, of course, Tennessee. Rohan ranks each program on a “panic meter” on a 1-10 scale. A one equates to no cause for concern at all, and 10 essentially means that the program is in shambles.
Of his four-team list, Rohan gave a 10 (highest level of concern) to only one program: Tennessee.
Terrible puns aside, members of Vol Nation are no strangers to misery, which we recently detailed here at Rocky Top Insider just days before Tennessee’s heartbreaking double-overtime loss to BYU.
“Tennessee has been a wreck for the last decade now, save for a few nine-win seasons under Butch Jones,” Rohan said. “In 2017, Jones’s last year, the Volunteers went 4-8. In 2018, the first season under Jeremy Pruitt, they went 5-7. This year seems it’s more of the same. Tennessee is 0-2 for the first time since 1988, and those two losses are to Georgia State and BYU in double overtime”
Rohan would later write that, should the Vols continue to lose, “Tennessee could be looking for another coach sooner rather than later.”
But should Vol fans really be that concerned about the present (and future) state of the program?
While an 0-2 start to the season is not what anybody, including Tennessee football head coach Jeremy Pruitt, envisioned, it’s still just the start of a multi-year rebuild for Pruitt and the Vols.
Scott Frost, head football coach for the Nebraska Cornhuskers, has an identical record to Pruitt thus far in his first 14 games as a head coach. Both Frost and Pruitt are 5-9 to start their head coaching careers at their respective schools, and most critics and writers, including Tim Rohan himself, think that Frost’s program is trending in the right direction.
That’s not to say that both programs are similar in every way; rather, things may just seem worse on Rocky Top because of the tumultuous few years that have preceded the 0-2 start to the 2019 season.
Pruitt and his staff have recruited four-star and five-star talent at every position on the football field, and many of the players recruited by Pruitt’s staff have already shown flashes of greatness.
On defense, true freshman Henry To’oto’o already looks like a seasoned veteran at the linebacker position, making plays all over the field. Against Georgia State, To’oto’o became the first Volunteer since Dwayne Goodrich in 1996 to lead his team in tackles in a game as a freshman.
Offensively, running back Eric Gray has shown speed, elusiveness, and pass-catching ability, which is already drawing comparisons to Tennessee standout and NFL Pro-Bowler Alvin Kamara. Gray has a lot to prove before he can live up to such lofty comparisons, but after averaging more than 4.4 yards per carry in his first two games, it seems like Gray has found a great place to start.
If looking within the program is not enough to sway concerned Vol fans’ worries, perhaps looking to the school’s basketball team might help.
In his first two years at the University of Tennessee, head basketball coach Rick Barnes went 31-35 and failed to produce a winning season in either of his first two years in Knoxville. The two seasons since then, however, have seen the Volunteers go 26-9 and 31-6, respectively, with an SEC Championship, two NCAA Tournament appearances, and a trip to the Sweet Sixteen mixed within those seasons. And Barnes did that all without a single five-star player on the roster.
Again, success in one place does not equate to success elsewhere, but it should provide room for optimism to even the most beaten down fans in the country.
Like Tim Rohan wrote in his Sports Illustrated article, losing to Georgia State and BYU in back-to-back weeks is not exactly ideal. Vol fans have every right to be concerned — and even angry — with the current state of their football program.
But before Tennessee fans can ever even hope to see 10 wins in a season, they have to be okay with seeing a 10 on the panic meter first, apparently.