Disappointing finish to Pruitt's first year at UT

Associated Press • Nov 26, 2018 at 1:06 AM

KNOXVILLE — Perhaps the clearest evidence of Tennessee’s fall over the last decade is how the Vols have lost their status as the premier football program in their own state.

Tennessee (5-7) squandered an opportunity to earn a bowl bid in coach Jeremy Pruitt’s first season by losing 38-13 at Vanderbilt in its regular-season finale. This marks the third straight year the Vols lost to the Commodores, an in-state rival they’ve traditionally dominated.

While Vanderbilt (6-6) awaits its bowl destination and Memphis (8-4) and Middle Tennessee (8-4) prepare to play in conference title games, the Volunteer State’s flagship program is finished in November for a second straight season.

“Lord knows we’ve got a long ways to go,” Pruitt said. “We’ve got to improve.”

UT is 2-5 against Vandy over the last seven years after posting a 28-1 record against the Commodores from 1983-2011. Saturday’s 38-13 result was Vanderbilt’s most lopsided victory in this series since a 26-0 triumph in 1954.

UT finished its seventh losing season in the last 11 years. Pruitt is its fifth head coach during that stretch.

That’s a stunning fall for a program that won at least eight games every year from 1989-2004 and had at least 10 wins in eight of those seasons, including the 1998 national championship run.

There were signs of progress under Pruitt, who inherited a team that set a school record for losses last year in a 4-8 campaign during which it was winless in Southeastern Conference competition.

The Vols won at Auburn when the Tigers were ranked 21st and posted a home victory over a Kentucky team that was ranked 11th at the time. But they also lost by at least 25 points six times.

The victory over Kentucky put Tennessee one win away from bowl eligibility, but the Vols closed the season with blowout losses to Missouri and Vanderbilt.

“I just wish we could have stayed more consistent,” defensive lineman Alexis Johnson said.

Defensive end Kyle Phillips said good teams sustain their level of play each week and acknowledged that the Vols didn’t do that.

“We definitely have a young team with some new faces trying to embrace the new culture that this coaching staff is trying to bring to us, and everybody wasn’t bought in,” he said. “That’s what happens when everybody’s not bought in. That’s when you get inconsistent play.”

Johnson and Phillips join Shy Tuttle as departing senior starters along the defensive line, but that is one of the only areas in which Tennessee is facing significant losses to graduation. Tennessee was the only Football Bowl Subdivision program that didn’t have any seniors start a single game on offense this fall. That inexperience was evident after the Vols ended the regular season ranked 122nd out of 130 FBS teams in yards per game (325.5).

On defense, the secondary had true freshmen Alontae Taylor and Bryce Thompson starting at cornerback for much of the season.

While the Vols figure to return most of their key players from the 2018 team, they still must add much more talent to get on equal footing with most SEC teams. Pruitt used his postgame news conference Saturday to make a pitch to potential recruits.

“We’ve got to recruit some depth to where we get competition,” he said. “When we do that, we’ll get better in a hurry. I think if a young man wants an opportunity to have a chance to play in the SEC really early, this would be a good place to start.”

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