Tennessee fans normally despise the notion of watching Alabama play football.
However, Vol Nation has a particular rooting interest when the Crimson Tide square off against Clemson on New Year’s Day in the Sugar Bowl.
In case you’ve decided to enjoy your existence and stay away from social media, Tennessee hired Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt as the 26th head coach in program history. Similar to several coordinators before him, Pruitt decided to remain on Alabama’s staff until its College Football Playoff run is over. The Crimson Tide are accustomed to this predicament — defensive coordinator Kirby Smart accepted Georgia’s head coaching position before capping off a championship season in 2015, while offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin accepted the FAU job during last season’s playoff.
Kiffin lived up to his meme persona and was “fired” from the staff before last year’s National Championship. Luckily for Nick Saban, Pruitt will honor his commitment to the team and isn’t distracted enough by his new gig to warrant concern.
While it’s appropriate and admirable that Pruitt is honoring his soon-to-be former players by coaching in the playoff, the circumstances surrounding the four teams in the College Football Playoff will ultimately hurt Pruitt upon his permanent arrival in Knoxville.
If there’s one thing Vol Twitter is good at, it’s building up hype. They did so prior to the 2016 season, only to watch the Vols crumble. They also convinced themselves that Jon Gruden was definitively going to leave his comfortable life for the grind of an SEC coaching job.
Although Pruitt never once appeared on Vol Twitter’s radar prior to his hiring, expectations surrounding the defensive guru have already reached ridiculous levels. And it’s all because of the early success of two coaches in the College Football Playoff — Georgia’s Kirby Smart and Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley.
For those unaware, Lincoln Riley has Oklahoma playing for a spot in the National Championship in only his first season as a head coach. Meanwhile, the coach opposing him in the Rose Bowl, Kirby Smart, is only in his second season.
Because of that, Tennessee fans are comfortable with Pruitt’s lack of head coaching experience, despite the obvious differences between Oklahoma and Georgia’s circumstances when compared to Tennessee’s.
When Smart arrived in Athens after the firing of long-time coach Mark Richt, he inherited a roster fresh off a 10-win season. When Riley took over for Bob Stoops in Norman, he inherited an 11-win team along with the best player in college football, Baker Mayfield.
Pruitt is afforded none of those luxuries. Tennessee suffered its worst season ever in 2017, which admittedly had more to do with coaching than talent. Having said that, the talent is more sparse than fans/local media pundits are willing to believe. Physically, Tennessee doesn’t stack up with teams such as Alabama, Georgia, and Auburn, all of whom are on the schedule next season.
Could Pruitt become the next Dabo Swinney, a coach whose first job was a Power 5 job and methodically transformed it into a powerhouse? Maybe, but Swinney was groomed within Clemson’s system for years before taking over the reigns in 2009. Meanwhile, Pruitt has zero ties to the University of Tennessee. More importantly, Clemson is 40-3 since 2015. Let’s pay Swinney the respect he deserves while being fair to Pruitt — stop mentioning both in the same sentence. Pruitt hasn’t earned that right in any way, shape, or fashion.
This isn’t to say Pruitt will fail — he could be exactly what Rocky Top needs. Instead, this is to say, let’s wait and see. Because while Smart and Riley are in the College Football Playoff at early stages in their coaching careers, remember Mark Helfrich? He had Oregon playing for a National Championship in just his second season after replacing Chip Kelly. Once Marcus Mariota left, the Ducks deteriorated, and Helfrich was fired two years later.
Patience is a virtue for a reason. Very few have it, and no matter the outcome of this year’s College Football Playoff, none of it will matter come next September when Pruitt has to face the music and actually run a program.