Location: The place where WWE’s Kane has been elected mayor...aka Knoxville, Tenn.
Head Coach: Jeremy Pruitt (First year)
Biggest Offseason News: After a season that was a dumpster fire, resulting in the dismissal of Butch Jones, the three-ring circus continued to say the least. A mismanaged hiring process that included the Vols being turned down by multiple targets, the hiring of Greg Schiano being aborted following backlash from fans, not to mention the firing of athletics director John Currie finally resulted in Phil Fulmer replacing him and hiring Jeremy Pruitt as head coach.
There is, of course, some irony in the fact that Fulmer is being brought back to help rally and unify the very fan base that became fractured during the end of his tenure as head coach. The fact that Peyton Manning, Peerless Price, John Henderson and Al Wilson were not walking through that door didn’t help affairs.
Fulmer and Pruitt can toss around all the buzzwords that they want about Vol Nation and everything like that, but one thing that unifies any fan base is winning. Pruitt and his staff have a road to hoe in order to do that - at least in the fashion that’s envisioned.
Why This Game Matters
For any first-year coach, a signature win is hugely needed to get the players and fans to buy in. That opportunity usually comes in rivalry games, sometimes by way of an upset. Given the history between Pruitt and Georgia, he’d like nothing better than to post a signature win against the Bulldogs.
Georgia will have the advantage of playing a Tennessee team that’ll already have two challenging contests within the first four games - a season-opener in Charlotte against West Virginia and a Sept. 22 contest against Florida. Georgia, on paper should be unbeaten going into this one and may also have the advantage of playing a Volunteers squad coming off an emotional rivalry game.
From a Munsoning standpoint, Georgia’s worry in this one is fatigue coming off of playing at Missouri the week before...especially if that game’s a late kickoff and the Tennessee game is at noon or so.
Can an offensive offense improve? The good news for Tennessee is that it has two capable and experienced playmakers at receiver in Marquez Callaway and Tyler Byrd. The bad? Tight end Ethan Wolf has graduated. The worst? The Vols still have to figure out who’ll get the ball to said receivers and other rising newcomers that step up. Remember - this is an offense that went 14 quarters without a point last year. At least publicly, no starter has separated themselves at quarterback between Jarrett Guarantano and Stanford transfer Keller Christ...an scenario that Pruitt may be seeing deja vu from his witnessing of the Greyson Lambert/Fauton Bauta/Brice Ramsey misadventure. The longer that Tennessee is unable to settle on a starter under center, the more uneasy things will be on offense, regardless of who’s lined up at receiver.
Transitioning on defense. Logic says that this is where Tennessee will move quickly toward improving from last year. With Pruitt being a defensive-minded coach, look for him and defensive coordinator Kevin Sherrer to be hands-on to fix things himself, if need be. The fact that this unit gave up a school-record 251 yards per game on the ground last year should making starting from a clean slate easier with the change over to a 3-4 defense. The highest group, potential-wise looks to be linebacker with two of last year’s top four tacklers, Daniel Bituli and Quarte Sapp being back. That experience and leadership will be critical for Pruitt as well as the addition of JJ Peterson from this year’s recruiting class. Look for a young and hungry group in the secondary with both starting cornerbacks having graduated. It’s absolutely a situation of less experienced players learning on the job, regardless of experience. This group will have an unenviable task to open the season against West Virginia’s Will Grier and take some lumps, but the hope will be that by game seven or eight, they will be up to par.
Special Teams Outlook. The Vols were spoiled the past few years with the reliable Aaron Medley at placekicker. That comfort level is gone with both the punter and placekicker roles needing to be replaced.
It’s obviously a time of transition in Knoxville. Not only does Pruitt have to get the players and fan base to buy in, but he also has to handle all that comes with being a first-time head coach. The intrigue factor comes with Fulmer’s involvement - how long until he is unable to resist the urge to become more involved in the program and pretty much be a puppetmaster behind the scenes pulling the strings?
On the field, there’s no wading into the water for Tennessee this year. Not only is there the West Virginia game to start things, but there’s Florida and Georgia back-to-back and a bye week comes before Auburn, Alabama and South Carolina.
The biggest key for UT may be maintaining confidence as it grinds things out to go for bowl eligibility.
What will happen on Sept. 29
Reducing impact from the previous week will be critical for both. Tennessee will be coming off the Florida game and Georgia’s defense will be on the heels of facing Mizzou’s Drew Lock. Odds are pretty good that this one draws the 3:30 p.m., CBS slot for the Pruitt vs. Kirby angle alone. Throw in the chance for Georgia to put itself further in the catbird seat in the East, and stadium environment won’t be an issue on this day in Athens.
Between Georgia’s depth on the offensive line being able to wear down things up front and a UT secondary learning the on the fly, look for things to be close for a half or so before Georgia pulls away.
Georgia 35, Tennessee 10