On paper, a game between a team picked to finish last in the Sun Belt East and one tabbed to finish third-from-last in the SEC East looked to be among the least appealing of a not-exactly-scintillating opening week. Which only goes to show …
Well, something. Darned if I know exactly what.
Georgia State beat Tennessee 38-30 in Neyland Stadium on Saturday. The Volunteers scored with two seconds left to make it that close. They went 45 minutes and five seconds between touchdowns. They were run off their famous field by a team that just went 2-10, and it was an especially bad 2-10. The Panthers beat only Kennesaw State of FCS — they needed a fourth-quarter rally to manage that — and Louisiana-Monroe. Only two of their 10 losses came by fewer than 14 points.
Before the game began, only two numbers seemed to matter. The Panthers were 24 ½-point underdogs against a team that lost its final two games of 2018 by an aggregate 58 points to Missouri and Vanderbilt. Also: Georgia State was being paid $950,000 for its presence in the big stadium by the Tennessee River.
Put another way, that’s $950K Phillip Fulmer can’t use to buy out Jeremy Pruitt.
To say this was the biggest victory in Georgia State football history falls under the heading of Duh. Only once had the Panthers come close against a Power 5 opponent, that a 23-17 loss at Wisconsin in September 2016. Georgia State’s first 10 Power 5 dates yielded this aggregate score: Big guys 454, GSU 96.
Now this. Now a victory against one of football’s Brand Names, and not some fluke, either. This was domination from the second quarter on. The Atlantan in me would love to say that Saturday’s result proves beyond doubt that the Panthers can be more than a doormat in the South’s one true sport. On this day, they looked like a real team. But the suspicion is that, for as much as this game said about the Panthers, it said more about the Vols.
From John Adams of the Knoxville News-Sentinel: “This was the worst loss in the modern era of Tennessee football.”
From Blake Toppmeyer, also of the New-Sentinel: “At least Butch Jones never did this.”
Pruitt is coaching the Vols, at least for the moment, only because so many others spurned the job that the school fired athletic director John Currie, who was then on the West Coast interviewing Washington State’s Mike Leach. Currie’s replacement was Fulmer, who’d been pushed aside as coach in 2008 to make room for -- whoa, Nellie -- Lane Kiffin, who lasted a year. Fulmer hired Pruitt, a defensive coordinator at Florida State, Georgia and Alabama. It appeared an iffy fit. It has become a misfit.
Tennessee is a fishbowl job. The man who coaches the Vols is the most scrutinized figure in the Volunteer State. Pruitt is the fourth man to be handed the job post-Fulmer — the full list: Kiffin, Derek Dooley and Jones — and he arrived having never been a head coach. It shows. Pruitt is aggressively unpolished. Not to go all schoolmarm on you, but his grammar is atrocious. (“Blocking, tackling, execution,” he said of Georgia State. “They done all that today.”)
At SEC Media Days, Pruitt offered a 21-minute opening statement. That’s a coach’s basic Rotary Club speech — “Here’s our roster, from the quarterback to the long snapper” — but it was, for an audience of professional media types, a sneering way of running down the clock. (Coaches are allotted 30 minutes in the big room. This seemed Pruitt’s attempt to avoid questions on the order of, “How’d you lose to Mizzou and Vandy by 58 points?”)
Tennessee went 5-7 in Pruitt’s Year 1. He changed offensive and defensive coordinators. He lured Jim Chaney from Georgia for $1.5 million, which tells us that the Vols have money to burn but aren’t shrewd about spending it. (Is Chaney a competent OC? Yes. Is he top-shelf? Nope.) And still there was no question Saturday as to the identity of the better-coached team.
The Vols scored two first-quarter touchdowns. Afterward they tried to make do by kicking field goals. When they fell behind in the fourth quarter, they couldn’t muster even that. The Panthers took the lead with 8:56 on a 75-yard drive that featured only one third down, that a third-and-1. (So much for new Tennessee defensive coordinator Derrick Ansley, hired for $1 million.) But you figured, having seen many such budding upsets undone when the bigger team finally gets serious, the Vols would fashion some answer.
They fashioned eight minutes of football that should stand as an embarrassment to anyone who has worn the Big Orange. The ensuing drive went splat when GSU cornerback Evan Jones strip-sacked Jarrett Guarantano on a blitz of which no blocker took note. Looking to kill the game, the Panthers faced third-and-5 at the Vols’ 34. Dan Ellington’s pass was incomplete. But wait.
Tennessee tried to make a late personnel change, so late that it wound up with 12 men on the field at the snap. This wasn’t a failure of playing; this was tactical malpractice. You cannot seek to change defenders with the offense about to set itself. Georgia State converted the first down. Two plays later, Ellington ran 22 yards for clinching touchdown.
But wait. The Panthers would score again! They banked a field goal after Tennessee’s next possession, which lasted lasted two plays — a sack and an interception. Were I Greg Sankey, I’d have revoked the Vols’ SEC membership on the spot. (Indeed, Elliott had \postgame fun with the league’s famous credo: “They say, ‘It just means more’ — it meant more to us.”) Full credit to Georgia State for holding the Vols’ feet to the fire. No credit to Tennessee for capitulating so abjectly.
There are some in Knoxville who believe Fulmer won’t be happy until he’s back coaching the Vols. (He turned 69 Sunday; Nick Saban turns 68 in October.) Being displaced 10 years after leading his alma mater to a national title has never sat right with him. Nobody was shocked when the Vols self-reported that their AD, in full coaching regalia, was seen instructing offensive linemen in a practice last fall, which is technically an NCAA violation. Only designated coaches are allowed on the field.
Ordinarily I’d laugh at the thought of Fulmer replacing the guy he hired with, er, himself, but I wouldn’t be shocked at anything Tennessee does. One week in, Georgia State has made its season by defeating an SEC team. But we have to ask: In anything but name, is Tennessee still an SEC team?
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