With most coaches, we talk about a second-year bounce if they know what they’re doing, but considering that Jeremy Pruitt’s second season started out 1-4, with losses at home to Georgia
Southern State and BYU, and finished with a six-game winning streak against a bunch that included a Sun Belt squad and two P5 schools that played in minor bowl games, it appears the media is willing to give the man a mulligan.
Odds to win SEC Championship: +10000
Why it’s undervalued: The SEC East has been the Florida-Georgia show as of late. The Bulldogs and Gators have won the last five divisional titles, all while Tennessee has either fallen short or been in rebuild mode. With Florida and Georgia being the favorites out of the East in 2020, don’t overlook Tennessee as a longshot. Whereas Kentucky has overachieved in the past two seasons — a credit to coach Mark Stoops — Tennessee is still looking for its breakout.
Reason for optimism: The talent Coach Jeremy Pruitt has stockpiled is impressive. The Vols have a legit offensive line with a nice mix of proven veterans and young but promising tackles (Wanya Morris and Darnell Wright were SEC All-Freshman selections). The quarterback room is led by Jarrett Guarantano who, despite his ups and downs, has been good enough but there’s more upside behind him with blue-chip freshman Harrison Bailey. If there’s a Year 3 jump, it’s in part because of the guys Pruitt has recruited.
Question mark: Who’s going to be the breakout star? Top receivers Jauan Jennings and Marquez Callaway are gone so there’s a lot of room for a freshman or sophomore to fill the void — and the Vols have a bevy of talent waiting in the wings. Also, can sophomore running back Eric Gray take the next step after a strong finish to last season? There are a lot of possibilities for this offense.
Schedule: It’s hard — the early-season trip to Oklahoma sets the tone — but there are opportunities for the Vols to be a CHAOS TEAM in SEC play. Florida, Missouri, Kentucky and Alabama all come to Knoxville. If Pruitt improves upon last year’s seven-win regular season with Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Oklahoma on the schedule — all four could be vying for playoff spots at the end of the season — that will say a lot about the direction of the program.
I count two “if”s and one “a lot of possibilities” in four paragraphs. In particular, the “if” in that last sentence is doing some heavy, heavy lifting. Eh, if it doesn’t work out, that just puts the fourth-year bounce in play.