The 2019 season started as badly for the Tennessee Vols as any season in recent memory.
But it finished on an incredible high note.
After a sluggish 1-4 start that had some folks muttering the words “hot seat” in reference to head coach Jeremy Pruitt, the Vols rallied to finish 8-5.
It’s only the third time in the last 12 years that Tennessee’s finished with at least eight wins.
After the way the season played out, I think it’s safe to say that eight wins is the floor of the program under Pruitt.
Pruitt had to navigate an impossibly difficult quarterback situation in 2019. He didn’t really have any good options. Jarrett Guarantano had experience, but was terribly inconsistent. Brian Maurer and JT Shrout had the talent, but both struggled at times due to their inexperience.
But somehow, Pruitt was able to make it work. During the Vols’ six game winning streak to end the season, Pruitt mixed and matched his quarterbacks. Maurer started, Shrout started, Guarantano came on in relief and then eventually returned to starting. Even wide receiver Jauan Jennings started a game lined up at quarterback.
Pruitt did what he thought was necessary to win each game. And even though it wasn’t an ideal situation, it worked.
The Gator Bowl on Thursday night was similar to Tennessee’s entire season. Pruitt went to Maurer after Guarantano struggled early. When it was apparent that Maurer wasn’t going to be a better option, Pruitt went back to Guarantano. And the Vols grinded out a win.
Pruitt on the QB situation tonight:
Guarantano struggled, so he took him out.
Maurer struggled, so he took him out.
Then JG rebounded.
“When the game was on the line, that’s who we wanted in the game. And you know what, he came through.”
— Blake Toppmeyer (@btoppmeyer) January 3, 2020
Aside from last season, this is likely the worst team the Vols will have under Pruitt. There isn’t much depth. The quarterback situation is shaky at best and the defensive line was ripe with inexperience.
But Pruitt was able to get the best out this group.
Moving forward, this is as bad as it’ll get under Pruitt. Eight wins is going to be considered a down season for the Vols. But it won’t get worse than that.
Tennessee had six losing seasons in the 2010s. That became their new normal in their first decade without Phillip Fulmer leading the program.
But that new normal is in the past. The new normal under Pruitt is finishing at least third in the SEC.
Now that the floor of the program has been established, it’s time for Pruitt and his staff to work on expanding the ceiling of the program.
A 2020 recruiting class full of talent (including stud quarterback Harrison Bailey) should help the Vols on their quest to ascend to the top of the SEC.
I don’t know how long it’ll take Tennessee to get there. In fact, I don’t know if they’ll get there or not.
But I know they won’t be returning to the cellar of the SEC under Pruitt.
Featured image via Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports