The Kentucky Kiss of Death

Football fans were greeted this morning with an autumn chill that crept in overnight. Perhaps it rode into town with our conference rivals from up north. It seems even Mother Nature knows that regardless of restructured COVID-19 schedules, it’s just not Tennessee v. Kentucky without a little fall weather.

No Tennessee coach has long survived a loss to Kentucky since some guy named Majors roamed the sidelines. When Dooley lost to Kentucky to cap off year two, every honest fan knew it was over. He was terminated the next season. Buch Jones lost to Kentucky in year 5, and did not survive the month. We are Tennessee, and we do not lose to Kentucky. Even in a decade of inferior football, that much has been true. Since coach Fulmer was terminated and the program began its spiral into sports irrelevance, Tennessee had recorded ten wins and only two losses to the big blue, that during the worst stretch in program history, while Kentucky enjoyed (relative) success. That is until yesterday, when the Vols notched a second loss in four games against Kentucky, the first time that has happened since 1977.

Yes, losing to Kentucky has become the kiss of death for a UT coach. Typically, at that point everyone knows that the latest experiment has run out of track. That is not the case this time. Yesterday’s loss was frustrating, perplexing and totally unexpected. No one before kickoff was bearish about the direction of a program that only two weeks ago was on the biggest hot streak in college football, even after a second half blow out at Georgia. It is evident that Pruitt has transformed this roster in terms of the quality of athlete, and until very recently it appeared the team had turned a corner mentally. The fruits of Pruitt’s labor were not exhibited on the field this week. Why? Because so much progress can be masked when your achilles heel is found at the quarterback position.

Pruitt and co receive a failing grade when it comes to recruiting and developing the quarterback position. Guarantano’s desire and dedication cannot be questioned, but he is a guy who at his best wont beat you and at his worst is a malfunctioning turnover machine. The coaches insist that he is the best option we have, and in doing so they convict themselves.

Not all of the blame lies on Guarantano (though if he doesn’t hand fourteen first half points to the other team, you have to imagine the game goes differently). The vaunted “TVA” looks like it should spend less time shooting Mask Up Tennessee commercials and more time in the film room. Our o-line has been confused for large parts of two straight games. That falls squarely at the feet of the coaching staff. They have not looked prepared.

It’s hard to fault a defense that has been repeatedly put in unwinable positions by its offense, but at times the pass coverage has been shaky this season.

This team has serious challenges to face. Several key players from last season appear to have regressed, and it does not have a quarterback capable of protecting the football. However, a reasonable spectator must admit that this team is leaps and bounds ahead of the program Pruitt inherited. It’s not getting better fast enough, but it is getting better. Progress is not always linear. There is no pillar of salt leading the way out of this desert. Pruitt and co have shown that they get it, that they can at times and in time put the Vols in positions to be successful, even very successful. Pruitt remains the Vols best hope, and I would not bet against him just yet.

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