Our church has been meeting online and at a minor league baseball stadium the past however many weeks now. We’ve been talking about the wilderness a lot, starting right after Easter, because I think there’s plenty in our current experience that feels at home there. Probably more than we’d like.
It’s been a metaphor I and many others have used for Tennessee going on more than a decade now. This is on pace to be the 13th year the Vols have struggled, in one form or another. But those first couple, you didn’t think we’d have to spend too much time there. For me, it wasn’t until Lane Kiffin left and we replaced him with Derek Dooley that I really thought, “Okay, this is going to take a minute to get figured out.”
Not a while, back then. A minute. A bit, maybe. A year, maybe two, no wait Tyler Bray is awesome, etc.
Then when it didn’t work with Dooley, you knew whoever was next was going to take a few years, at least three. That turned out to be the right calculation, actually, or at least it should’ve been. We could see the Promised Land from 2015 and 2016, we just didn’t get in.
Then when it all fell apart with Butch Jones, we went to a very vulnerable place between John Currie and Greg Schiano, but came out of it with Phillip Fulmer, which at least made me feel better. We knew the day it happened that saying no to Schiano in such a fashion would set the short-term back, not forward. But we appreciated that, in hiring Jeremy Pruitt, it didn’t feel like a move made in the name of damage control.
(Also, I know defending Fulmer is my thing, but for people saying he should get killed for this hire…who else were we getting after that mess? Mel Tucker just took a 49-7 L to Iowa. Kevin Steele hasn’t been hired by anyone else. Wasn’t Pruitt the best we were doing in that moment in time?)
And then we lost to Georgia State. But then it didn’t matter!
But now, it matters again.
You’re going to lose games, some of them badly in one way or another. The hope is you keep those losses far away from each other, and put enough winning between them to not allow those dots to be reasonably connected. Even when Tennessee was blown out by Kentucky earlier this year, there was a hope – especially after watching the first half of the Georgia game and really deep into the third quarter – that it was an isolated incident. Maybe not isolated for Guarantano, but for Tennessee’s progress, which wasn’t far enough down the road to avoid beat down by pick six.
But the way Tennessee struggled against Arkansas – the Vols didn’t just lose, they struggled – draws a line through a lot of things. Reasonably so.
Big picture, these things remain true:
- Tennessee’s talent level has improved and is improving, especially since 2017.
- But it’s not improving nearly as fast as what’s happened at Florida and Georgia since then.
- Tennessee’s SP+ rating is currently lower than at the end of any season since the rating’s inception in 2005.
The Vols are getting better players, but not at the same rate as their biggest rivals – not just Alabama, but Florida and Georgia. The Vols are trying to chase down the rest of the top half of the SEC doing a less talented version of what a lot of them are doing. And right now, the on-field product is as bad or worse, play-for-play, than anything we’ve seen.
We can throw around, “This is the worst I’ve ever seen,” a lot, and it’s usually wrong. But play-for-play, that might be true right now. In May, we compared Tennessee’s preseason SP+ rating to the way the Vols ended in each of the last 15 years, grouping them into tiers. The Vols had a 14.8 (points better than the average team) rating back then, making them most similar to the 2009, 2012, and 2016 (full-season edition) Vols. The common denominator there was having a real chance to win almost every Saturday, which was a good goal for 2020, we thought.
Instead, Tennessee plummeted to a 0.5 SP+ rating this week. In the last 15 years, only Butch Jones’ final season in 2017 comes close, and it’s at 1.2. The next lowest on the list is Jones’ first season at 5.1.
There’s losing to, or even getting blown out by, teams that are much better than you. There’s losing to Kentucky, maybe, as a fluke because you threw consecutive pick sixes. But play-for-play, Tennessee has simply been bad and very bad since halftime of the Georgia game. It’s mostly the offense’s problem, though the defense too is down from their preseason projections. But when you add “hard to watch” to these equations, they don’t get any easier to solve.
Back in the good old days of 2007, I wrote about how curiosity was becoming the dominant emotion with the Vols too often: “Let’s see what happens this week!”, instead of feeling like you should win every single Saturday the way we knew and loved for so long at Tennessee’s peak. But right now, it feels like the only curiosity left surrounds Harrison Bailey, who either can’t get in the game or can’t have the game plan set up to do anything other than hand off.
And sure, the world is super unfair right now. Bailey gets no spring practice and a bunch of contact tracing in the fall. Saturday night the SEC Network shared sentiments from Jeremy Pruitt on not wanting to play young kids before they were ready for fear that it might ruin them, and that he thinks that might be what happened with Jarrett Guarantano in 2017. I don’t love the comparison – JG was a redshirt freshman in 2017 and didn’t beat out Quinten Dormady in fall camp – and sure, maybe don’t give him his first start against Alabama. It’s an idea that might actually be true for Harrison Bailey, but the comparison with Guarantano is off by enough to make you question the entire logic. And if Guarantano can’t go against Texas A&M, I think at this point you clearly have to play Bailey no matter what.
So there’s curiosity about your quarterback, and then curiosity about whether the Vols can just keep it close. Tennessee opened as only a 12-point underdog, and it’s around two touchdowns in SP+ even with Tennessee rated so low. It would be the same against Auburn this week. Statistically, even at a low point, it doesn’t feel impossible. But in the eye test, and after so long, the gut test, it sure can feel that way.
If you’re chasing pageviews, maybe you slap Hugh Freeze’s name in the title up there. But because of the virus, I’m not sure there’s anything that could happen on the field – or even in recruiting – this season to cause Jeremy Pruitt to lose his job, or create significant turnover among the assistants. If the team that showed up against Kentucky and Arkansas – and failed to show up, in so many ways, in the second half – plays A&M, it’s going to lose by a lot more than 12-14 points no matter who’s playing quarterback. And then it’s going to lose that way to Auburn. And no matter what it does against Vanderbilt, least fun of all to Florida.
I do not know how a team that was so resilient in the back half of last year – not just winning six in a row, but playing from behind in every one of them that wasn’t UAB – seems to fold so fast this year. It carries a bit of Derek Dooley’s, “We don’t handle adversity well,” business, with that same silent acknowledgment from the listener that, in year three, whose fault is that?
We have played so many of these games before. And a stiff neck will not get you out of the wilderness any faster.
But perhaps it’s finally become the wrong metaphor. Because I’m afraid, no matter how bad it might get on the field, the virus is going to make it feel more like exile for a minute. Or maybe a bit. Who knows, because who knows where this virus is going. But, as we discussed on our podcast last night, that feels like the dominant question for Tennessee right now: “Where is this going?”, at a time when the virus may not let you go anywhere else.
What do you do in exile? Build houses and live in them, plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have children. Multiply, do not decrease. Seek the welfare of the city you’ve been exiled to.
And, most painfully, don’t listen to the prophets who tell you this will all be over soon. For Tennessee, in the midst of this virus, I don’t know how realistic that possibility is.
All of that is the context for Jeremiah 29:11, in the six verses that precede it. “For surely I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord, “plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” But sometimes those plans include a period of exile.
No matter how it feels, of course, we’ll still be here. Still trying to figure it out, still learning how to love this team well. Trying to be fruitful and multiply in a harsh season with no easy outs on the horizon. Curiosity, however much is left, will still beat apathy.
But I think one of the most valuable gifts in exile is honesty about the reality of one’s situation. No matter who ultimately leads Tennessee out of exile – Pruitt, Fulmer, someone else – or how long it takes, the first step will always be admitting you have a problem. It’s a gift to be able to acknowledge the reality of one’s situation, even when you like it so very little.
We need honesty. Honesty, and basketball.