Earlier this month, Tennessee head football coach Jeremy Pruitt was leaving a post-practice press conference when he was stopped by a reporter from Brazil. The man, who apparently had a hard time communicating with Pruitt during the presser, apologized by saying, “I’m from Brazil. Sorry for my English.” To which Pruitt replied, “Have you heard my English?”
Hilarious! Killer line!
Pruitt’s biggest success on Rocky Top thus far has been his ability to ingratiate himself to the Vol fanbase, a group that’s been beaten down worse than every Steven Seagal adversary the last decade-plus. He sounds like someone from Chattanooga. He doesn’t speak in platitudes. He doesn’t come off like a used car salesman. His first name isn’t Lyle.
The months away from football has definitely helped. Everyone’s forgotten about the fact that the Vols got clobbered by Vanderbilt FOR THE THIRD YEAR IN A ROW. Or that they blew a 12 point lead to a mediocre South Carolina team. Or that Florida, Georgia and West Virginia all beat them by 26 points. Or that Alabama has beaten them 12 years in a row. Unfortunately I haven’t. I never do. No wonder I drink.
Instead we as fans have gravitated towards fun, uplifting stories like, “Jarrett Gurantano is the 21st ranked quarterback in college football according to Pro Football Focus!” or “ESPN ranked Tennessee as the 14th best program over the first 150 years of college football” (a bit low, in my opinion) or “Look at how much bigger the asses and thighs are on the team this year! They’ve really been hitting the weight room!”.
Listen, all that matters this season is whether Tennessee is going to be able to field a competent offensive line that can actually block for the first time this entire decade. If that happens, hell, 8-4 feels entirely doable. If not, it’s another 5-7 season and Pruitt’s seat is hotter than the sun on his bald head at an August practice heading into Year 3.
Some good news in that area is that Trey Smith, the most talented and best lineman on the entire campus, and potentially in the whole conference, has been medically cleared from his scary blood clot issues and will play in Saturday's season opener. Of course, he played in seven games last year and the offensive line still blocked about as well as a wet paper bag, so it’s going to take a lot more than just him to turn this unit into a capable one.
If the O-Line can stay in front of people, Jarrett Guarantano has the ability to have a really nice year. Despite getting obliterated the last two seasons by pass rushers, Guarantano has managed to complete 62.1% of his passes in his 19 game Vol career. He’s tough, he’s accurate, and he also benefits from being guided by the best offensive coach he’s probably ever had, new Vol OC Jim Chaney. Chaney called the plays in 2012 for the Vols when they had one of their best offenses in team history (UT scored 30+ points 9 times and went over 50 twice). He was also the OC at Georgia the last three years, presiding over the #1 ranked offense in the SEC in 2017 and the #2 ranked attack in the conference last season. He certainly can’t do worse than what Tyson Helton achieved in 2018, when he coached the Vols to… the last ranked offense in the SEC, which is exactly where they finished in 2017.
You could argue that Chaney benefits from his move to Knoxville more than anyone. He gets to go from looking like the Redneck Kool Aid man on Fall Saturdays to James’s Giant Peach after it’s been pulled off the Empire State Building. What’s that? That’s not an improvement? Eh…. Maybe not.
Outside of quarterback, the Vols return 9 other starters on offense. Again, this group helped Tennessee finish last in total offense in the SEC the prior two seasons, but hell, if you’re optimistic, there’s certainly not a more experienced offense in the whole conference than this team! Wide receiver Jauan Jennings is somehow just now a senior, and Ty Chandler and Tim Jordan showed flashes of being competent SEC running backs last year, despite, again, being blocked for by a group of wet paper bags.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Vols got an enormous boost this week when Michigan transfer Aubrey Solomon’s waiver was finally approved by the NCAA. Solomon should bolster a defensive line that will be without arguably their best player in that unit, Emmitt Gooden, due to a torn ACL. It’s too bad Solomon can’t play in the secondary as well, because Freshman All-American corner Bryce Thompson was arrested for domestic assault over the weekend and got himself indefinitely suspended. If he ends up getting booted from the program (and there’s an argument that he should), then that leaves a pretty big void in the defensive backfield that won’t be easily filled, if at all, or at least not competently. Nigel Warrior returns with a great name and… that’s about it. Let me know when that guy makes a big play. Or hell, makes any play that isn’t a penalty or losing his man in coverage. Rooting for you, but sheesh.
Darrell Taylor and Daniel Bituli return at linebacker, though Bituli, the team’s leading tackler the last two seasons, will be out potentially for a couple weeks after undergoing knee surgery. Freshman Quavaris Crouch will get a ton of snaps at that position this season, and while everyone seems to be high on him, he’s a completely unproven player at this point who will probably go through the typical SEC growing pains.
The schedule breaks their way a bit this season. Their first three games are all at home against inferior opponents (Georgia State, BYU, Chattanooga). The only potential threat here is BYU, who returns 14 starters from last year’s 7-6 campaign.
Then there’s at Florida on September 21. The good news is that the Gators looked pretty pedestrian this weekend against a very mediocre Miami team. The bad news is that Gainesville has been a house of horrors for the Vols; Tennessee hasn’t won their since 2003, and has only left victorious three times since 1971. I wouldn’t bet on a fourth.
After the bye week, the Vols host #3 Georgia. Considering the ‘Dawgs have outscored Tennessee 79-12 the last two years, this feels like another loss.
Mississippi State comes to Knoxville the next weekend. The Bulldogs return just 11 starters and have to replace star quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, who they lost to graduation. This is a potential fork in the road game for Pruitt’s future and the Vol season at large. Win this game and a bowl berth is almost guaranteed. A mark of a good program, or one going in the right direction, is taking care of your home field against equal or lesser opponents. Nick Saban and Alabama have lost four home games since 2008, and none since 2015. Kirby Smart and Georgia are undefeated at home the last two years. Dabo Swinney and Clemson haven’t lost a home game since 2016. I could go on and on.
October 19th is at Alabama. Gulp. You know what though, at least be competitive. In 2015, when everyone was still unsure of whether or not Butch Jones was capable, the Vols went into Tuscaloosa against the eventual national champions and only lost 19-14. They had a lead in the fourth quarter! I know, I can’t believe that’s real either.
October 26th is home against South Carolina. How the hell is Will Muschamp 7-0 against Tennessee? That’s the most inexplicable Vol football stat of all time, and frankly, I could discard all of the bad Tennessee numbers and you’d still be able to get a clear picture of how inept things have been on Rocky Top this decade just by hearing that. This one is just like the Mississippi State game; take care of business against the equal or slightly lesser opponent.
If everything plays out the way I think it will, Tennessee will head into the month of November with a 5-3 record, with UAB, at Kentucky, at Missouri, and home for Vanderbilt left. Honestly, which of those opponents terrify you? UAB doesn’t have comparable athletes, and the Vols beat a better Kentucky team last season than what the Wildcats will trot out this year. Missouri will probably be tough, particularly with quarterback Kelly Bryant transferring in from Clemson, but I don’t think it’s IMPOSSIBLE for them to win, probably just unlikely. And then there’s Vanderbilt, who has somehow outscored the Vols 125-71 the last three years on their way to their first three game winning streak over Tennessee since they won six in a row from 1920-1926. I don’t think you can be a successful Tennessee football coach if you start your tenure out 0-2 against Vanderbilt. Honestly, you should probably just be fired on the spot. I’m betting that won’t happen. It can’t. Right?
Assuming the season plays out this way, the Vols are 8-4 and on their way to a bowl game for the first time since 2016, with a chance to win that ever important ninth game. Remember this, and remember it well, because I’m going to be saying this all season: since the institution of the SEC Championship Game in 1992, every coach that has gone on to win the conference won at least 9 games by their second year. There’s 25 years of evidence that if a coach is going to work out big time at his new program, he gets it turned around relatively quickly. The clock is ticking. The Vol fanbase is willing to be patient, but you’ve got to give us something. Some hope. Some reason to believe you’re the guy. Losing to Muschamp or Vanderbilt again can’t happen. Let’s be competitive this season! As painful as it was to lose to the Tide in 2015, the taste of the almost victory and what it could’ve meant is significantly better than losing to every big time opponent by four touchdowns every week. Because at least I can convince myself that the Vols are close to getting over that hump and restoring themselves to the once proud program they were, one that was capable of competing for National Championships and winning SEC Titles.
Now, onto the Week 1 picks….
Georgia Tech at #1 Clemson
The first ever game on the ACC Network pits the defending champion Tigers at home against a Georgia Tech team that is transitioning from 11 straight years of running the triple option of former coach Paul Johnson to a more pro-style approach that new head coach Geoff Collins and OC Dave Patenaude want to implement. The Yellow Jackets didn’t have a single tight end on the roster when Collins got the job back in December. I can’t think of any reason why Clemson won’t win 70-0.
The Tigers are replacing all four starters on their defensive line from last year, but honestly, with as easy as their schedule is, that won’t be a potential problem until whoever they face in the playoff semifinals on December 28th. Clemson only plays two teams ranked in the preseason Top 25, and they’ll do that the next two weeks as they welcome Texas A&M into Death Valley on September 7th and then travel to Syracuse on September 14th, the site of their last ACC loss two years ago. Assuming they win both of those, the next nine are all either cupcakes (Wofford, Charlotte), vastly overmatched (Wake Forest, Louisville, N.C. State, Boston College), coached by a 68 year old man in his first season (North Carolina and Mack Brown), an in state rival they haven’t lost to since 2013 (South Carolina), or a once proud program with assuredly the wrong coach (Florida State and Willie Taggart). They’ll roll over whoever they play in the ACC Championship Game too.
UCLA at Cincinnati
The Bearcats spoiled Chip Kelly’s debut in Los Angeles last season by winning 26-17. In hindsight, that probably should have been a bad omen for the Bruins’ season, as they finished 3-9 and lost five games by double digits. The shine is certainly off ole Chip at this point; in his last three seasons as a head coach with the Eagles, 49ers, and UCLA, he’s a combined 11-32 with 20 losses by double digits. Sheesh. We’re supposed to be optimistic because starting quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson is in his second year in Chip’s system? Has he proven that he’s capable of being spectacular in it? Sure, the Bruins averaged 31 points and 475 yards of offense in their last four games at the end of the 2018 season, which would be encouraging if three of those four weren’t started at quarterback by Wilton Speight. UCLA has too many questions at this point for me to take them seriously, particularly in a game where they have to travel all the way across the country.
#14 Utah at BYU
Vol fans, assuming they stay up for the 10:15 kick, will get an early look at what BYU has as they take on their instate rivals. The Utes are the favorites in the Pac 12 South thanks to 15 returning starters, including all four on the defensive line, a unit that helped Utah finish number 1 in the conference in run defense last season. The Cougars blew a 20 point third quarter lead in this matchup last year and have lost 8 straight times to the Utes. It’s going to be nine times in a row.
#19 Wisconsin at South Florida
Jack Coan will start the season at quarterback for the Badgers, replacing Alex Hornibrook, who transferred to Florida State in the spring. Of course, if we’re being honest, that’s not a huge loss, considering Hornibrook completed less than 60% of his passes last year and tossed almost as many interceptions, 11, as he did TDs, 13. Coan started the last four games in 2018 for the Badgers, including their bowl game, and was slightly better (60.2% completions, 5 TDs, 3 picks). If things don’t work out with Coan this season, expect to see highly touted freshman Graham Mertz under center at some point.
Meanwhile, South Florida returns 16 starters (9 offensive, 7 defense) from last year’s team that, after a 7-0 start, lost their last six, including a lackluster bowl performance AT HOME against Marshall where they were defeated by 18. Former Arizona State and Alabama transfer Blake Barnett is firmly entrenched as the quarterback, and he was… okay last year? 61.1% completions, 12 TDs, 11 interceptions were the numbers he put up.
USF’s best chance is if Wisconsin struggles with the heat and humidity, which will both be in the low 80s at kickoff. Otherwise, I think the Badgers win by double digits.
Oklahoma State at Oregon State
The Beavers are 14-46 over the last five seasons, including a paltry 2-10 last season in head coach Jonathan Smith’s first year in charge of the program. Meanwhile, Oklahoma State is 44-21 over that same stretch, with three ten win seasons and five bowl appearances. However, the Cowboys went just 7-6 last year and surrendered 30+ points in nine of their 13 games.
Ok State coach Mike Gundy and his fantastic mullet haven’t named a starter at quarterback yet, and we won’t know who it will be between Hawaii grad transfer Dru Brown and redshirt freshman Spencer Sanders until kickoff. In fact, both of them will probably play on Friday night.
Elsewhere, the Cowboys return 14 starters, including First Team All-American wideout Tylan Wallace, who finished second in the country with 1,491 receiving yards. The defensive line replaces their top 6 contributors from last season. Again, this was a really awful defense last season, but this group did help the Cowboys finish 10th nationally in sacks per game with 3.0, and was the strength of an otherwise matador defense.
The Cowboys should be like they always are, a team that puts up a ton of points and gives almost as many. That won’t matter tomorrow night because Oregon State might be the worst program in all of the Power 5, but until they figure out the defense, this program feels like it’s peaked.
Prediction: Oklahoma State
FAU at #5 Ohio State
The fighting Lane Kiffin’s, fresh off a 5-7 season in 2018, travel to Columbus to face a Buckeye team that replaces both it’s starting quarterback and head coach. This is a big job for 40 year old Ryan Day, who was only the sole player caller with Ohio State for one season before getting promoted to the head job when Urban Meyer stepped away.
The Buckeyes should blow through FAU with little issue on Saturday, but this will be a tough first year for Day, who returns just four starters from last year’s 13-1 team. Georgia transfer Justin Fields, whose most famous college moment thus far was being involved in the worst fake punt in the history of the sport, will be the starting quarterback.
Fields was granted an immediate waiver to transfer to OSU, thanks in large part to the fact that a UGA baseball player used a racial slur towards him during Georgia’s football victory over Tennessee last season. Listen, I don’t have a problem with guys transferring, but let’s be honest about this, Fields is leaving because he got to Athens and realized he was going to sit behind Jake Fromm for the next two years. The slur is just an excuse. Should people being using slurs towards each other? Of course not. But let’s not act like Fields’s “health, safety, and well-being” (the NCAA’s standard for granting immediate eligibility for transfers) were in jeopardy on the UGA campus. He’s a five star recruit in a football mad state. He was a celebrity the moment he stepped foot into Athens. Plus, the school dismissed the baseball who uttered it towards him. Come on Justin. Drop the act.
The lack of Buckeye experience and the young, new head coach all lead to this: it’s now or never for Jim Harbaugh and Michigan. If they can’t beat OSU, win the Big Ten, and seriously compete for a playoff spot, then Ann Arbor might burn to the ground. The Wolverine offense returns quarterback Shea Patterson in his second year in Harbaugh's system, their top two receivers from last season, and the bulk of their offensive line. The defense isn’t quite as loaded as it was last year, but there’s enough coming back for it to be a formidable unit in 2019. Harbaugh is handling all this pressure perfectly, of course; just last week he was talking about the SEC “cheaters” that were making his job harder. Yes Jim, I’m sure that perfectly explains why you’ve struggled with the non-cheaters in the Big Ten the last four years.
Duke vs #2 Alabama (in Atlanta)
The Tide opened up as 32.5 point favorites for this matchup, facing an overmatched Blue Devil team that will be replacing its starting quarterback Daniel Jones, who was selected in the first round of the NFL draft. Saban has been money in these opening neutral site games, winning every one of them by double digits since he arrived in Tuscaloosa.
Alabama’s biggest problem heading into the season, outside of the smackdown Clemson laid on them in the National Championship Game in January, is that they’ve already lost two starting linebackers, Joshua McMillon and Butkus Award finalist Dylan Moses, to season ending injuries during fall camp. Sure, the Tide are loaded with four and five start talent, so they are probably better equipped to handle injuries than any team in the country, but it’s not like those losses don’t matter either.
I don’t want to be the person predicting the end of the Saban dynasty, but 2019 definitely feels like a big year for him and the Tide. I’m sure they’ll still win the SEC again, but the sport belongs to Clemson now; the Tigers have beat them two of the last three times, and the four touchdown smackdown they laid on them in the championship game was Saban’s worst defeat in five years. I think Tua is fantastic and has been overly criticized for the first bad game of his college career against a Clemson team that was loaded with NFL talent, but unless something changes, the Tigers have unequivocally the better quarterback in Trevor Lawrence. The rosters are at least comparable, and the ACC is so hollowed out at this point that Clemson will go months without being challenged, meaning they’ll be by far the fresher team when the two play each other again in the championship game again in January. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not shedding a tear for the potential death of the Saban-‘Bama dynasty. As a Tennessee fan, it’s about damn time. Hell, I celebrate that. But if Clemson kicks their ass again, then we’ll know definitively who the new king of college football is. (Going to be honest, I never thought we’d be saying that about someone named “Dabo”. Dabo sounds like the name of guy who does oil changes in a rundown auto shop in Mulaga, Alabama.)
South Carolina vs North Carolina (in Charlotte)
68 year old Mack Brown returns to North Carolina, the place he coached from 1988-1997, hoping to turn around a program that’s gone 5-18 the last two seasons. I’ve never typed a nice thing about South Carolina coach Will Muschamp, but he does have a three year starter at quarterback in Jake Bentley and seven returning starters on defense.
I can’t imagine I’d want to turn the future of my program over to a 68 year old man, especially if my ambitions were to eventually compete for a conference championship. It’s going to take… three years to dig UNC out of the hole they’ve plummeted into? By that point Brown will be 71, and this is assuming that he can actually pull the turn around off. Don’t forget that Brown didn’t win ten games in any of his last four seasons at Texas, and hasn’t coached anywhere since 2013. I don’t expect his tenure to be anything except three straight losing seasons and a final retirement after that.
Prediction: South Carolina
Northwestern at #25 Stanford
The Wildcats travel to Palo Alto to face a Cardinal team with a senior quarterback, KJ Costello, who will probably be in the NFL next year. Northwestern returns just 12 starters from last year’s team that went 8-1 in the Big Ten. I don’t think either of these teams will be in the hunt for their conference title in November, but I’ll give the Cardinal the edge here because the Wildcats are flying across the country for this one.
Boise State vs Florida State (in Jacksonville)
The Broncos have won 10+ games four of the last five seasons as they travel about as far as possible as someone can in the U.S. to face FSU in what is a virtual road game. Meanwhile, the Seminoles in 2018, under first year head coach Willie Taggart, had their first losing season since 1976. FSU returns 17 starters from last year’s team but must replace quarterback Deondre Francois after he was kicked off the team. James Blackman takes over as the starter, though he has played to mixed results thus far; 59.2% completions, 24 TDs, 12 picks in 15 career games.
If Taggart is going to work at FSU (and let’s be honest, there’s no way in hell he will), then he needs to pop this year with a relatively experienced team in what should be an abominable ACC. If the ‘Noles win on Saturday, they shouldn’t lose until they travel to Clemson on October 12th. Syracuse is their second most difficult conference game, but the Orange do come to Tallahassee. Miami also comes to them, but honestly, was anyone impressed by what the ‘Canes did last weekend? I certainly wasn’t. They also get Florida on the road in the last week of the season, but again, were you impressed with the Gators this weekend? I guess you would be if you loved Feleipe Franks talking smack to the camera only to immediately follow it up with a potential game losing interception.
FSU should win Saturday, and with that schedule, they should be on their way to nine or ten wins, but when you’ve got a middle school tight ends coach like Taggart in charge of your program…. Well… good luck!
#3 Georgia at Vanderbilt
The ‘Dawgs are loaded and the odds on favorites to win the SEC East for the third straight year, and deservedly so. Their “showdown” with Vandy will be over the second they get off the bus in Nashville.
It’s not “now or never” this season for Kirby Smart and UGA, because they’ve already won the SEC and made the playoff, but with Alabama’s injuries, the SEC pedestal is definitely up for grabs. Georgia could very easily be 2-0 against ‘Bama the last two years but are winless instead due to coaching malfeasance/Tide backup quarterback brilliance. But it’s not like there’s a mile long gap between these two programs. Beat Alabama, win the SEC, and make the playoff, and all of the sudden Georgia is positioned fairly well to start becoming “the program” in this football mad league. Fail again, particularly spectacularly, and all of the sudden it’s Mark Richt’s UGA program all over again (and as a Tennessee fan, hell, that’s not the worst thing in the world. Can that please happen again?).
#11 Oregon vs #16 Auburn (in Dallas)
The game of the weekend is the only one that pits two ranked teams against each other. I can’t for the life of me figure out why Auburn is the favorite here; they’re taking a true freshman quarterback, Bo Nix, into an enormous stadium, in a primetime, national TV game, against Oregon’s Justin Herbert, the potential number 1 pick in next April’s NFL draft. The quarterback matchup alone swings this one towards the Ducks.
This is also huge game for Auburn’s head coach Gus Malzahn, who is another mediocre year away from… not getting fired because his buyout is a preposterous $26.6 million. There’s not a coach in the history of the sport who has gotten paid more for beating his arch rival (Alabama) twice than Malzahn. Take out his 2013 and 2017 seasons and Gus is a paltry 14-18 in the SEC. The entire trajectory of Malzahn’s Auburn tenure flipped when the Kick Six happened. Without that, he finishes 2016 with no victories over Alabama in four tries with an increasingly lackluster program and gets fired. Instead, that play happens, and it leads to him getting a dumb contract from a dumb administration.
Houston at #4 Oklahoma
The Dana Holgorsen era starts at Houston with a journey north to Norman. Meanwhile, the Sooners are on their third quarterback in three seasons in Alabama transfer Jalen Hurts. The good news is that their last two, Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray, both won the Heisman Trophy, and guided their teams to Big 12 Championships and berths in the College Football Playoff. OU returns just one offensive starter from last season, but that’s not as much of a concern as it normally would be considering head coach Lincoln Riley is perhaps the best offensive mind in the sport, and has helped propel the Sooners to the top ranked attack in all of college football the last two seasons. OU’s problems have been on the other side of the ball, where their defense has ranked near the bottom of FBS in almost every category the last two years. Honestly, the lack of competency on that side is probably why they’ve been one and done in the playoffs in both 2017 and 2018. Alex Grinch was brought in from Ohio State to fix the defense, but this will probably be more than a one year rebuilding process.
This game could be fun and high scoring, particularly if Holgorsen’s West Virginia offense shows up with him from Morgantown. Maybe both teams get into the 30s? 40s? Regardless, the Sooners will win.
#9 Notre Dame at Louisville
Scott Satterfield is the new head coach at Louisville, replacing Bobby Petrino. Satterfield, who was previously at Appalachian State, where he went 51-24 over six years and won the last three Sun Belt conference championships. Satterfield might be a success with the Cardinals eventually, but this is a pretty tough opener for him, facing down the ninth ranked Irish with their returning quarterback Ian Book.
The Notre Dame schedule isn’t a gauntlet, outside of their visit to Georgia on September 21. Their five ACC opponents are Louisville, Virginia, Duke, Virginia Tech, and Boston College; not exactly the football equivalent of the ’27 Yankees here. USC comes to them, maybe with a new head coach if Clay Helton gets fired by then. The Stanford game is on the road, but they have more talent on paper than the Cardinal. Assuming they lose to Georgia, there’s no reason they couldn’t go 11-1 or 10-2 with this schedule and keep themselves in the playoff discussion for most of the season.
Enjoy college football this weekend. Thank God it’s back!