ESPN’s win probability data is available on their Gamecast page for every game since 2016, one year shy of the most famous blown late leads of this decade. So I can’t quantify the comparison, at least in this way, between the BYU loss and what happened against Oklahoma or Florida in 2015 or the Gators in 2014. Much is being made of BYU having a 99.6% chance of defeat when the ball was snapped on the penultimate play of regulation. The Vols were so fond of close games under Butch Jones, outcomes with a 90+% guarantee often went the other way. In 2016 the Gators had a 90.5% chance of victory up 21-3 midway through the third quarter. The next week the Vols were at 98.6% when Jacob Eason hit his hail mary, then the Dawgs at 99.9% when Josh Dobbs hit his. And against Georgia Tech in 2017, the Yellow Jackets had a 90.6% chance of victory on their snap that became the fumble that gave the Vols a final chance in regulation.
So sure, it’s brutal to lose when you have a 99.6% chance of victory in the final minute. But this one was particularly and uniquely painful because the Vols also controlled the entire game up to that point. ESPN’s win probability had the Vols at better than 60% for the entire game before that play, and better than 70% save for a few moments after Jarrett Guarantano’s third quarter interception and BYU’s lone touchdown in regulation. The Vols never led by more than 10, but the outcome never really felt in doubt once you saw that this team came to fight.
If coming to fight was step one, the defense denying Brigham Young for almost all of regulation was step two. And in passing those two tests, the Vols did take the worst of what we were all thinking off the table: that the team would fold, or that the defensive front was so outmatched it would be as if they did when playing someone better than Georgia State. But by putting this kind of gut-punching loss on the table – a first for Jeremy Pruitt, but not for this decade or the upperclassmen on the roster – the dots stay connected, the team folding creeps back into our thought process, and the big picture gets a little more blurry.
As for where Jeremy Pruitt fits in that picture, I think we can safely say there’s not a knowable scenario where it’s in Tennessee’s best interests to fire him this season. My assumption is it would take a cataclysmic finish like 2-10 to make the Vols eat the $9 million buyout, and even then maybe not. So much of that, and the big picture itself, depends on continuing to recruit at a high level. Tennessee has to play well enough to maintain interest from the kind of talent it will take to turn this thing around.
That, like a lot of things, is less about a specific number of wins and more about what progress looks like on the field. This team could finish something like 2-10 and still not lose six games by 25+ points the way they did last year. Hopefully Tennessee’s actual progress looks closer to six wins than two; I’ve got them splitting the difference at exactly 4.00 in our GRT Expected Win Total Machine.
We’ve spent so much time since 2008 trying to figure out how close we were to the top. Perhaps the better question for the present is measuring how close we are to the bottom.
By bottom, I don’t mean just losing to BYU with a 99.6% chance of victory. And that’s also not all I mean by the present.
This might get worse before it gets better. Chattanooga is likely to give the lowest attendance of my lifetime a run for its money. And if the Vols look bad against the Gators, something worse might happen against Georgia: a sell-off to the red & black, turning Neyland Stadium in 2019 into what Commonwealth Stadium looked like in the mid-to-late 90’s when the Vols came calling.
There is so much we want to embrace about who the Vols have been in our lifetimes. But it’s usually healthiest to embrace the truth of one’s present reality. The Vols are a long way from 2007 and a longer way from 1998. Perhaps it’s better for all of us to stop asking how soon we can get back up there, and instead figure out what needs to happen to simply get back up period.
The proverbial year two magic isn’t working for just about anyone right now, and should be Exhibit A for anyone who suggests you just pay as much as it takes on top of a $9 million buyout on top of Butch Jones to get a “sure thing.” Chip Kelly is 0-2 with two two-possession losses and 28 total points. Scott Frost and Nebraska lost to Colorado and looked bad against South Alabama. Willie Taggart is a missed extra point away from 0-2. Only Dan Mullen, who many of us didn’t want any part of, looks like a real success so far.
Obviously year two isn’t working for Tennessee either. But the Vols are so far behind, that entire conversation needs not just the pause button, but to come out of the CD player or VCR or whatever you had in 1998.
The Vols are 0-2 for the first time since 1988, the year before the best stretch in school history began, and the two losses came to Georgia State and BYU. It’s not in anyone’s best interests for the head coach to be somewhere else this season. And the Vols need to make enough progress to continue to recruit well. Things are bad, worse than we thought, and likely to stay that way for a minute or two. The most important thing is progress.
If the Vols truly don’t know how to win, they won’t learn it from 1998 or 2007. And it’s in Tennessee’s best interests to learn it from Jeremy Pruitt’s staff. We need to start measuring that progress not by the distance to the top, but the distance from the bottom.
So what does that progress look like now? Some good news is in the way you got minor glimpses of it against BYU. Ty Chandler’s 154 rushing yards were the most by a Vol running back since…Rajion Neal went for 169 against South Alabama in 2013. The Vols blocked well for long stretches, and the defense created penetration. BYU had 225 yards of offense before the long pass and two overtimes.
I don’t know what’s happening with Jarrett Guarantano. I do know the Vols were the worst team in college football in short yardage rushing last season by a significant margin. In that sense I don’t mind Jim Chaney’s end-around call in the fourth quarter; maybe the Vols should’ve called timeout or checked to something else, but we learned last year this team doesn’t have the horses to just line up and push for a yard consistently.
And I know we’re only two games into this season and 14 into Pruitt’s tenure. I know we probably underestimated, again, the impact of having two brand new coordinators, even when one of them is Jim Chaney. And I know the worst of this schedule is yet to come.
I don’t know what Tennessee’s best can do against it. But I do believe it’s in Tennessee’s best interests for us to pull for it – all of us in the same direction.