Make no mistake about it: Tennessee’s start to the 2019 season has been nothing short of embarrassing. The Vols lost 38-30 to Sun Belt foe Georgia State to begin the season, lost in double-overtime to BYU, and got blown out on the road to Florida. Tennessee’s only win in that span was against UT-Chattanooga, an FCS opponent.
To say things haven’t gone according to plan in Knoxville would be selling the Vols’ 2019 season short to this point.
Despite that abysmal beginning, Jeremy Pruitt has stated that his team is “100 times better” right now than they were at this point last year. While that in itself is a bold claim, Pruitt apparently isn’t the only coach who thinks the Vols are better than their 1-3 record would indicate.
Georgia head coach Kirby Smart met with the media on Monday for his weekly press conference. His No. 3 Bulldogs take on the Vols this upcoming Saturday in Neyland Stadium. Right now, Smart’s Dawgs are 25-point road favorites against Tennessee, and most are expecting Georgia to hand the Vols another blowout loss in Knoxville like they did in 2017.
But Smart isn’t discounting the Vols. In fact, he thinks Tennessee is on the verge of making a turnaround.
“They were thinner at some positions last year. They’ve got more guys. They’re rolling and playing more guys,” Smart said to reporters on Monday. “They’re playing really hard, and they play really physical. You look at the games they’ve played this year, they’ve had some self-inflicted wounds. Otherwise, they’re winning or in those games. And you know the way they’re coaching and the way they’re demanding, they’ve got a good staff. They’re going to push these kids, and they’re getting them better.
“They’ve had a whole week to get better and improve, and I think it shows on tape when you watch them how hard they play, that they’re on the brink of something special, and you can tell these guys are playing hard, and they’re playing with a lot of young guys. There’s a lot of guys out there that were recruited last year in a lot of situations.”
Although the Vols have started 1-3 for only the third time in the last 25 years, Smart doesn’t think that record is a true indication of how good (or bad) the Vols are. He credits Pruitt and his coaching staff for pushing UT’s players and for recruiting well enough to address some depth concerns from last season.
While it’s true that Tennessee has been able to rotate in more players at certain positions — especially in the defensive front seven — that depth hasn’t translated to more wins or drastic statistical improvement from last season. Granted, a lot of the Vols’ depth is dependent on young players, and over half of Tennessee’s roster entered the 2019 season with one or fewer years of FBS experience. That young core of players have taken their lumps, but they’ve shown promise as well.
Maybe it’s that potential that Smart sees that led him to claim the Vols are “on the brink of something special” in Knoxville. Smart didn’t specify if he meant this season or in the future beyond this year, but it’s clear that he thinks Tennessee has it in them to be better than what they’ve been so far this season.
Or maybe Smart’s comments are little more than coach speak. After all, Nick Saban, Urban Meyer, and others often praised Derek Dooley while he was head coach of the Vols, and Butch Jones was rarely if ever called out by opposing coaches for being a bad fit at UT, either.
Unless it’s Steve Spurrier, Lane Kiffin, Les Miles, Mike Leach, or a small handful of other coaches making comments about an opponent, more often than not a coach will fall back on “coach speak” when talking about an opposing team. That’s likely the case here with Smart.
Still, both he and Pruitt are clearly bigger believers in Tennessee’s ability than most of the national media and likely a lot of Vol fans, too. Tennessee could prove both coaches right on Saturday if they give the Bulldogs a game.
Kick-off for Saturday’s contest is at 7:00 PM Eastern in Neyland Stadium. The game will be televised on ESPN.