What happened to Tennessee football?

Georgia head coach Kirby Smart catches up with Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt before an NCAA football game between the University of Georgia Bulldogs and the University of Tennessee Volunteers in Sanford Stadium in Athens, Ga., on Saturday, Sept., 29, 2018. (Photo by Kristin M. Bradshaw)

Trey Hill was sitting with Jake Fromm and a bunch of other Georgia recruits in the bleachers behind the east end zone at Sanford Stadium when the Bulldogs and Tennessee played in 2016.

On the other end of the field, the Vols launched a Hail Mary pass at the end of regulation, Jauan Jennings leaped up and caught the ball among a red blob of Bulldog defenders, and an unbridled Volunteer celebration in the middle of what’s now called Dooley Field.

“There were a lot of mouths open,” recalled Hill, then a prospect from Houston County High, now Georgia’s starting center. “It was just crazy.”

Indeed it was. The Bulldogs had just scored what appeared to be the winning touchdown 10 seconds earlier in that game on Oct. 1, 2016. Instead, they walked out 34-31 losers.

Georgia hasn’t left many games against Tennessee feeling similarly depressed in recent years. In fact, if not for that Hail Mary and Georgia losing Nick Chubb to injury and blowing a 24-3 lead a year earlier, the Bulldogs would be entering Saturday’s game against Tennessee seeking their 10th consecutive win in the series.

As it is, UGA has won seven of the last nine meetings and is a big favorite as the rivalry renews for a 49th time at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville this Saturday (7 p.m., ESPN). The No. 3 Bulldogs (4-0, 1-0 SEC) enter as three-touchdown favorites over Tennessee (1-3, 0-1), which has lost the last two games to UGA by a combined score of 79-12.

And the Bulldogs aren’t the only ones getting the best of Tennessee. The Vols' record since 2010 is 55-58. Only Kentucky and Vanderbilt, each of which was 50-64, has been worse in this decade. Even Ole Miss (56-57) and Arkansas (56-58) has been better. Georgia, by contrast, is 89-34 in that span.

Which begs the question, how did the Vols get here?

The demise of UT football

Jimmy Hyams doesn’t hesitate when asked how Tennessee football has gotten where it is today. Hyams, a longtime beat writer and columnist for the Knoxville News Sentinel who works as a radio talk show host on WNML, says it comes down to bad coaching hires.

“That’s exactly what it is,” Hyams said. “They haven’t been able to get the right guy since Mike Hamilton fired Philip Fulmer.”

Hamilton fired Fulmer after the Vols went 5-7 in 2008. That was their second losing season in the last four. But Hyams points out that Fulmer also had led the Vols to two SEC Championship games in the previous five seasons. And those two were Fulmer’s only losing seasons in 16.

Meanwhile, Tennessee did a poor job finding replacements. UT got the man it wanted in 2009 when they brought in Lane Kiffin. But he went 7-6 in his only season before bolting to Southern Cal.

Hyams said the three coaches since -- Derek Dooley, Butch Jones and Jeremy Pruitt -- were each the fifth option in their respective searches. Dooley had three straight losing seasons, Jones had two in five and Pruitt went 5-7 in his first season last year.

Hyams hasn’t made up his mind on Pruitt yet, but early returns are unfavorable.

“I’m not saying for sure that Pruitt is not the right guy, but if he goes 2-10 this year, I’d say for sure he’s not the right guy,” Hyams said. “Based on what we’ve seen, that could happen.”

The Vols dropped the first game of the season in stunning fashion, losing to Georgia State, 38-30. After falling to BYU in double-overtime at home the next week, Tennessee beat Chattanooga 45-0, then fell to Florida 34-3 in Gainesville on Sept. 21.

100 times better?

Pruitt told local reporters last week that he believes his second team is “100 times better” than the first. That infuriated some in the UT fan base. Hyams was among them.

“You just lost to Georgia State and Florida beat you by 31 and you’re 100 times better?” Hyams said. “That’s a coach who’s trying to throw stuff out there to save his job. That’s all that is.”

Georgia’s Kirby Smart, for one, buys that the Vols are better. The Bulldogs’ fourth-year head coach was asked Monday what he sees that is better about Tennessee this year.

“Their depth, their physicality,” Smart said during UGA’s media day. “They were thinner at some positions last year. They've got more guys. They're rolling and playing more guys. They're playing really hard and they play really physical.”

There are some things the Vols do very well, especially special teams. Junior place-kicker Brent Cimalgia leads the SEC in field goals (9-of-9), running back Ty Chandler leads the league in kick-return average (29.6) and they’re second in punt returns (17.8 ypg). Tennessee has a young but opportunistic secondary that has already logged six interceptions. The Vols also feature one of the best wide receiver corps Georgia will face all season. It still includes Jennings, who caught that heartbreaking 43-yard touchdown against the Bulldogs three years ago in Athens.

When it comes to familiarity, there are few teams that are better acquainted than these two. Pruitt was defensive coordinator at Georgia, and he and Smart both tutored under Nick Saban at Alabama.

Jim Chaney just left the Bulldogs to coordinate Tennessee’s offense, which already included former UGA coaches Will Friend, Kevin Sherrer, Tracy Rocker and Brian Neidermeyer.

To think the Vols won’t be focused on this Saturday’s game as a potential turnaround for their football program would be naïve.

“They’re demanding, they've got a good staff, they're going to push these kids and they're getting them better,” Smart said, “They've had a whole week to get better and improve. I think it shows on tape when you watch how hard they play that they're on the brink of something special.”


1. Alabama 113-13

2. LSU 91-30

3. Georgia 89-34

4. Auburn 79-41

5. Texas A&M 76-42

6. S. Carolina 74-44

7. Miss. State 74-44

8. Florida 71-44

9. Missouri 71-46

10. Ole Miss 56-57

11. Arkansas 56-58

12. Tennessee 55-58

13. Kentucky 50-64

14. Vanderbilt 50-64

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