Let's face it; the odds of either of those records happening for Tennessee in 2018 are unlikely. The thing is; it could happen. Most prognosticators of the college ranks have Tennessee sitting at about five or six wins. What if they are wrong? The big question here is what would it mean for Pruitt and for the Tennessee program if they end up repeating last year's abysmal performance by going winless in the SEC or somehow they manage to exceed all expectations and get to nine wins?
Of the two scenarios that will be discussed in this article, I can pretty much guarantee that sports writers believe this to be the more likely to occur. In order for this record to come to pass, the Vols would probably lose every SEC matchup (again) and lose the opener to West Virginia. This would mean that Tennessee's three wins would come against, ETSU, UTEP, and Charlotte.
Right off the bat this scenario would mean that going into week 11 of the season, Tennessee would be 3-6 with home games left against Kentucky and Missouri and an away finale against Vanderbilt. Of course there would still be the chance to reach a bowl game at this point, but I would imagine that Pruitt would have already lost half of the fan base depending on how the six losses went.
I base that statement primarily on Pruitt's demeanor and comments with the press regarding his team. For many, Jeremy Pruitt's frank and unfiltered comments regarding his expectations are a welcome change. There are only so many times that you can hear the phrase "Resolve and resiliency" before you want to jam an icepick into your ears. However, UT fans are some of the most hopeful fans in college football. Every year, we hope to win and win often. How else do you explain the consistent attendance of games that more than surpass many other programs that are winning? UT fans want to believe that good things are coming, even though times are tough now. If Pruitt continues to tell us the team is not playing good enough that they aren't trying hard enough, at some point the finger gets pointed directly at him.
As I mentioned earlier, a big part of the fan perception of Pruitt depends on HOW Tennessee loses those games. If Tennessee is in every game and the losses aren't the result of poor coaching decisions or really stupid play, it would provide Pruitt some grace. The fans that would not be calling for Pruitt's job, were probably already expecting to have a record comparable to 2017. They would have resigned themselves to the situation before the season began. They would also hold out hope for a three game streak to finish the season and a bowl game. However, if the losses are as ugly as they were last season, then a pretty big chunk of those same fans will not be as forgiving and instead of hoping for a three game sweep to finish the season, they will require one.
Of course, there are always going to be fans that simply cannot stand seeing UT lose regardless of the performance. These fans will be loudly questioning the decision of Fulmer to hire an unproven head coach from arguably Tennessee's biggest rival, especially when there were still other possible coaching hires that could have happened. By all accounts, Mike Leach wanted the job and I personally feel that Lane Kiffin's pathological need to be liked by everyone would have brought him back, had the offer been there.
So what would be the big picture result of a 3-9 season? Honestly, I don't feel it would make things much different than they are now. It would just be much more depressing for the fan base.
I don't think recruiting would be hurt any more than the 2017 season hurt it. Tennessee would pull in a top twenty five recruiting class. Pruitt will be able to continue to pull from Jucos and sell early playing time to kids. Hopefully between that and Pruitt's ability to develop players, it would result in better days ahead.
Fulmer would take the most heat. He hired Pruitt and by the time the 2018 season completes, he may be feeling even more heat depending on how the Lady Vols basketball team is performing because many fans don't like the idea of Holly Warlick getting an extension. Fans will seriously question whether Fulmer was the right choice as AD.
There would likely be some shake up within Pruitt's staff. I would guess that any of the coaches that did not come in as a long-time friend of Pruitt would be on the chopping block first. I don't think Pruitt would have to worry about his job in the slightest during the season, but a 3-9 record would almost mandate at least 6-6 in 2019 to keep his job after that.
I don't envision much turnover from the roster. I already expect that Will McBride or Jarrett Guarantano will transfer out depending on how the QB scenario plays out this season.
2017's record was the result of a perfect storm of bad luck, bad coaching, and a tough schedule. Well, we can lop off the tough schedule excuse in this discussion because, guess what, Tennessee ALWAYS has a tough schedule. The bad luck that I referred to were injuries. UT suffered a ridiculous number of injuries to starters last season, and as much as I hate to admit it, it could happen again. And in game coaching...; I probably shouldn't even get into that.
If Tennessee can somehow avoid the level of injuries it suffered last year and the coaching staff actually is as much of an improvement as it has been hyped to be, then eight wins is extremely reasonable and 9 is not too much of a stretch.
I don't think there is really much chance at all of UT beating Bama or UGA. We can hope though. After that, the three biggest question mark games will be West Virginia, Auburn, and South Carolina. I think it is reasonable to believe that Tennessee could pull out two of those three with a few lucky bounces. The rest of the games on the schedule are better than 50-50 odds or nearly certain wins.
The funny thing about the thought of Tennessee winning nine games in 2018 is that it might actually be a bad thing for Pruitt. We Volunteer fans have notoriously high expectations. Don't get me wrong, I think it is much better to have high expectations than low ones. How else will you succeed in life? Still, nine wins in 2018 would set the bar immediately very high for Pruitt going into 2019. Somehow, I think that Pruitt would be able to temper those expectations by going full Saban and still finding flaws in the play of his team. "Yeah, I know the score was 52-13, but we missed too many opportunities. We just aren't where we need to be as a team yet." On that note, Pruitt's penchant to be forever displeased with the performance of his team will be even more favorably looked upon by UT fans in the same way that Patriot fans view Bill Belichick.
Fulmer will be living the good life and looking like a genious. The Lady Vols could be a sub .500 team in December and because of the massive football turnaround and the excitement that a major bowl game brings would be more than enough to distract from the retention of Warlick.
Recruiting will take a huge jump for Tennessee and I can almost guarantee that Pruitt would bring in a top 5 class. Players would not be able to ignore a team predicted to struggle to get to six wins somehow more than doubling their previous season's win total. It would be comparable to what Scott Frost and Lane Kiffin did at their respective Florida schools in 2017, except that this would be in the SEC. In addition, Pruitt will still be able to sell the prospect of early play time for 2019's recruiting class.
I still believe that either Jarrett Guarantano or Will McBride will transfer away during the off season between 2018 and 2019, but I also would expect that Pruitt and Helton will be able to lure one or two more top flight QBs to Tennessee that better fit their system anyway.
I would expect minimal turnover with the staff, which would further help recruiting. The turnover that does occur would most likely be promotions to other staffs due to excellent performance under Pruitt.
One of the biggest positives of a 9-3 season for Tennessee in 2018 would be that it would almost certainly include a win at home over Florida. That alone would almost guarantee two more seasons for Pruitt. If one more of those wins can be over Will Muschamp, you might as well tack on another year.
The biggest thing that a 9-3 season for the Vols in 2018 will do is bring back respect to the program. After the fiasco that occurred last season with John Currie, Tennessee fans need that more than anything. Tennessee football is not a punchline. It is a historic program that has held its own against the other big boys for more than a century. It deserves respect, but it still has to earn it on the field. 9-3 does that.