Sunday Best: Tennessee vs. Florida; Maybe We Need ‘Here’ To Get There

 

We all know how we got here.

You don’t hire Derek Dooley and Butch Jones in back-to-back searches after Lane Kiffin’s one-and-done and expect any differently. You don’t load up recruiting classes with the layers of players who didn’t pan out in the 2016 and ’17 classes and expect any differently. You don’t keep redefining “rock bottom” as a program every year and expect differently.

Somebody asked me on Twitter if I felt this was finally rock bottom last night as I sat in my Y10 seats and watched the carnage. I said, “No, I think it’s a sublayer.”

In order to enact change, you’ve got to reach a low point.

It isn’t like we’re covering new ground here. It’s been bad for a while, and we all really believed it would probably be bad this year. How bad? Well, we saw last night that it can get ugly, and uglier is coming to a television set near you next week and the in the next few weeks after.

Maybe take a vacation or something if you don’t want to see it. It won’t be pretty.

Caught up in the anger and the frustration of the debacle, I tweeted out that it felt like Tennessee football is dead. Moments later, somebody stormed down the steps furious and said the same thing on his way out. “This program is dead; I’m done. I’m selling all my stuff next week!” he yelled to anybody as he left.

Go on, now. Git. We don’t need you anyway.

Do I think this program is finished? Nah. Do I think last night looked and felt like it? Absolutely. That’s why I typed it.

I love the Vols. You love the Vols. Some of us at times LIVE the Vols. This is intertwined in some of our livelihoods, some of our happiness. When they suck, we have bad days, bad weekends. Those of you who don’t feel that way or don’t let it get to you look at us and laugh or shake your heads. “Get a life,” you think. Some of us have one, but our lives are so much more enriched when the Vols win.

We’ve had a long, frustrating numbness, haven’t we?

By design and in name, this “Sunday Best” column is supposed to be about something good, something positive that happened on Saturday. I’m not going to pump sunshine, though. I felt no goodness out of a 47-21 loss to a bad Florida team. I felt no happiness out of all the turnovers and mistakes. I felt no positive vibes about how the team looked or what players stood out.

It looked like a bad football team and a coaching staff that, at times, got schooled by Florida’s.

But what I did see was an opportunity for the players to get embarrassed, for them to look at the scoreboard, at their body of work on the resume of a football field and say, “You know what? That isn’t good enough.”

Most of the improvement can’t be done by the guys who are now in orange and white. Most of it has to be done by Jeremy Pruitt and Co. in recruiting, a task now tons more difficult by getting destroyed on the field. It’s going to be worse against Georgia, Alabama and probably Auburn, too.

I don’t know the inside information on what happened with linebacker Quart’e Sapp, who reportedly left the field after being asked to go in the game. Pruitt’s postgame press conference shed little light on it, and Sapp came out and tweeted a message to Vol Nation today that he didn’t quit.

I don’t know if there was any animosity or ill will behind Trey Smith’s aggressive warmup that left John Mincey injured and angry as he was leaving the field. I don’t know why this team continually hurts each other (looking at the Shy Tuttle helmet “incident” last year, among other things) and won’t do anything like beat the ever-living mess out of Florida defensive end Cece Jefferson after his malicious cheap hit on Jarrett Guarantano during the game. If that happens to my teammate, I’m getting kicked out of the game.

I don’t know why none of this happened, but the fact that it happened and that the world saw it and the fans saw it may help these Vols look in the mirror and realize the in-fighting, the lack of leadership and the other hallmarks of the Butch Jones era must be completely and decisively eradicated in order for any success to enter.

This program is infected with failure, and you cannot blame Pruitt for that. Whether or not he’s the guy and this is the staff to fix it remains unclear, and, sure, offensive coordinator Tyson Helton and offensive line coach Will Friend need to do better than they’ve done so far. The play-calling seems unimaginative, and if the Vols can’t find any linemen who can block better than these, the rebuild is going to take longer than any of us want. But they also need better players to do better, don’t they? They need years of better strength and conditioning, don’t they?

Sometimes, it looks like these are SEC plays that simply aren’t being executed by SEC players.

You can’t blame the new guys for that. There are plenty of things we can blame them for, but that isn’t one of them. So, stop, aight?

That brings us back to the point about what we saw that was positive about yesterday? Well, while we saw those embarrassing things, I also saw a defense that was ripping balls out, getting in the face of Florida players and getting aggressive. Adding to Jeremy Banks’ alpha personality, we saw Alontae Taylor and Bryce Thompson show some swagger. Maybe the Vols’ feelings got hurt. Maybe their pride got hurt. Maybe those glimmers were the seeds of a program-altering response.

I wasn’t the only one who saw these things, even though I saw them through hurt, angry eyes.

Are those positives? Will they matter? They certainly didn’t last night. But, as Pruitt said, he’s trying to build something here. There is no foundation because there’s no leadership from upperclassmen. There’s no on-the-field mentors from which these younger guys can learn.

As I was walking out of Neyland Stadium last night, I didn’t hear much, which is not normal. Sure, there were the murmurs and the yells throughout the game, but, afterward, I locked eyes with several people who just gave me a worried head-shake. Others looked down. Still others seemed numb to losing by now. Walking up Highland Avenue, I was behind a kid and, presumably, his dad. The kid was about 12, and he said, “Hey dad, you remember that time when the Vols almost beat Alabama? I wish we could get back to that.”

My heart sank. This is where our program is right now. This is what it’s become. The missteps have been many, and though having Phillip Fulmer in the saddle as athletic director is a major step forward, the university and Board of Trustee leadership isn’t yet in place, and the politics involved in those filled seats will go a long way in determining whether this program ever has the infrastructure and support necessary to be great again.

It takes a village, and, right now, we’re just trying to find a handful of players who can be vocal leaders, build a team, rally some hope.

The 1998 national championship team was honored last night, and by the time they were fully recognized, this year’s Vols already had dug themselves a 20-point hole. “I wonder what Al Wilson thinks about this now?” I thought. I bet he feels much the same way we all do — hurt, sad, embarrassed, disappointed, mad.

I hope the current players do, too. If they don’t, then there won’t be anything good that comes out of Saturday night.

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Matt
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Matt

Brad, If our Vols played on the level that you, Joel, and Will have written in the last 10+ years, we would have several SEC Championships. Great points in this article. Still, I don’t know why anyone in their right mind who is a Tennessee Fan would willfully sit down and watch the game this Saturday-or for the next month for that matter- knowing what will happen. Why put yourself through this pain? Listening to East Tennessee Sports Radio this past week leading up to the game, you would’ve thought we had a decent chance, which I really didn’t understand… Read more »

Matt
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Matt

Btw the Gameday On Rocky Top, I hope I am so wrong! I hope this team and Coach Pruitt prove me flat out wrong on one of these SEC games left. Honestly don’t think we can beat any SEC team right now.

Harley
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Harley

Good points Brad. Agree, there is lot of work to be done to bring this program back to the “good ole’ days”… unfortunately it is going to take a long time and I hope JP and crew are the right guys to lead the rebuild… regardless, I have enough memory of the “good ole’ days” that I will continue to support the Orange and White through thick and thin. I will be watching on Saturday… Go Vols!!

Ethan
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Ethan

I think there might be something to watch for in the next month of games. What I think we hope to see is some kind of inflection point, after which the team starts to play better and we maybe have a chance against November. And as distasteful as it is, that could come in a quasi-competitive loss to one of these elite teams. Lose to Auburn by 15, and I think it might actually make me feel better about the long term future.

Joel Hollingsworth
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Good point.

Although I think that being up against three Top 10 teams, we could actually get better and still have no knowledge of that fact. Getting beaten into absolute submissive unconsciousness will make anybody look inept. And yet it doesn’t really say much about how you might do against non-elite teams.

Joel Hollingsworth
Admin

Really like this new Sunday series, Brad.