Dan Fleser: UT's Unbelievable Season Start

Tuesday, September 10, 2019 - by Dan Fleser

KNOXVILLE -  Tennessee’s 0-2 start to its football season has defied expectations and pushed the bounds of believability.

No way the Vols should’ve lost to Georgia State, which surrendered 526 yards of total offense to FCS Furman a week after celebrating its shocking 38-30 victory in Neyland Stadium on Aug. 31.

How could the Vols give up a desperation 64-yard pass to BYU in the closing seconds of regulation last Saturday? The breakdown allowed the Cougars to kick a game-tying field goal and eventually win in double overtime, 29-26.

The time Marcus Tatum had to process last Saturday’s stunning turn of events and answer questions afterward was measuring his minutes. The redshirt junior’s most telling comments, though, were years in the making.

“I’ve been through worse here,” the offensive tackle said. “We’ve all been through worse here. We’ve seen worse.

“Look at the positive. We fought. We just need to continue to fight because it’s really not the end.”

His perspective was impressive in its scope. In six sentences he acknowledged years of struggle while still summoning hope for the immediate future. The progression amounts to quite the leap of faith.

The opening two losses recall some low points in UT history. Before this season, which continues Saturday against Chattanooga, Tennessee hadn’t started 0-2 since opening the 1988 season with five consecutive losses.

The Vols hadn’t lost their first two home games since 1980.

The combination of losing the first two home games to two unranked teams, as is the case this season, hadn’t happened since 1953.

In Tatum’s time, the Vols already have burned through one coach. Butch Jones was fired after a 50-17 loss at Missouri on Nov. 11, 2017. UT finished with a program-worst eight losses.

Jones’ replacement, Jeremy Pruitt, lost to Missouri by the same score last season at Neyland. Despite a third consecutive loss to Vanderbilt the following week, the Vols finished one victory better at 5-7. They also won two SEC games – beating ranked foes Auburn and Kentucky - after going winless in conference play the previous season.

Adding veteran offensive coordinator Jim Chaney as part of a revamped coaching staff amped the usual offseason optimism, enough for some pronounced whiplash after the stumbling start.

Pruitt, undoubtedly sensing a change in sentiment, punctuated his speaking engagement at the Knoxville Quarterback Club on Monday by saying he’s the right man for this moment.               

“We’re working our way out of the wilderness right now,” he said. “But I can tell you, you want me on your side.”

On Tuesday, Tennessee broke from its usual practice and made two freshmen – linebacker Henry To’o To’o and running back Eric Gray – available for media interviews. To’o To’o has started two games and is tied for the team lead in total tackles with 15. Gray is second in rushing with 106 yards, averaging 4.4 yards per carry.  

Their presence freshened the narrative. Even better, To’o To’o endorsed Pruitt’s plans for the program when asked why he came all the way from Sacramento, Calif., to attend UT.

“I’ve seen Coach Pruitt’s vision,” he said. “I trust in Coach Pruitt and I still do. I love what he has going on. … He tells us it’s going to happen.”

When asked what resonated the most with him regarding Pruitt’s vision, To’o To’o said: “Opportunity. Opportunity to change something to be something good.”

In the meantime, Tatum considers the entire team, young and old alike, and doesn’t sense the same gravitational pull from the past.

“I feel like now people aren’t accepting it anymore,” he said. “I’m starting to see a little more motivation throughout the locker room.”

At this moment in UT history, they’re going to need much more than “a little more” to break free.

* * * 

Dan Fleser is a 1980 graduate of the University of Missouri, who covered University of Tennessee athletics for the Knoxville News Sentinel from 1988-2019. He may be reached at danfleser3@gmail.com


PHOTOS: CFC Soccer Returns To Finley Stadium

Madden Tops McDowell Wins Southern Nationals Opener In Maryville; Weaver And Lil' Overton Get Crossville Victories

Chattanooga Women's City Amateur Golf Championship 1st Round Tee Times


The Chattanooga Football Club returned to Finley Stadium Saturday, playing the Georgia Revolution for the NISA Independent Cup. The match was played without fans in the stadium. (click for more)

Chris "Smokey" Madden (# 44) of Gray Court, SC didn't miss a beat switching teams in mid-season just two weeks ago, winning Friday's Southern Nationals mini series opener at Smoky Mountain Speedway ... (click for more)

Click here for the Chattanooga Women's City Amateur Golf championship beginning on Tuesday at the Black Creek Golf Course. (click for more)



Sports

PHOTOS: CFC Soccer Returns To Finley Stadium

The Chattanooga Football Club returned to Finley Stadium Saturday, playing the Georgia Revolution for the NISA Independent Cup. The match was played without fans in the stadium. (click for more)

Madden Tops McDowell Wins Southern Nationals Opener In Maryville; Weaver And Lil' Overton Get Crossville Victories

Chris "Smokey" Madden (# 44) of Gray Court, SC didn't miss a beat switching teams in mid-season just two weeks ago, winning Friday's Southern Nationals mini series opener at Smoky Mountain Speedway in Maryville. Bringing with him his Team Drydene sponsorship to the Millwood Plumbing stables in Kingston, Ga., Madden worked past fellow SC racer Ross Bailes for the lead on lap nine ... (click for more)

Breaking News

Hamilton County Has Another Coronavirus Death, 106 New Cases; Tennessee Has 14 More Deaths, 1,460 More Cases

Hamilton County has added a 38th coronavirus death. Becky Barnes, Health Department administrator, said, "It is with sadness that the Health Department reports the 38 th COVID-19 of a Hamilton County resident. The individual was a 51-60 year old white female with underlying medical conditions." There are 106 new cases, bringing the total to 3,361. Tennessee had 14 more ... (click for more)

Health Department Says Individuals Had Potential COVID Exposure At Coolidge Fountain, Aquarium, Pizza Spot, Wedding

The Health Department has determined through COVID-19 contact tracing that potential exposures occurred at the Coolidge Park fountain area July 1, Old Chicago Pizza (Hixson) for dine-in service on July 2, the Tennessee Aquarium on July 4, and the Quillin-Hammonds wedding at Stratton Hall, 3146 Broad St. Individuals were at these locations during their infectious periods with ... (click for more)

Opinion

Are Theft, Vandalism And Arson Now Acceptable Behavior In Chattanooga?

There are a lot of things I don’t agree with in this world and I will openly speak out about it in a civilized tone and manner. I definitely don’t go around stealing, vandalizing and burnIng those items that frustrate or anger me as that would be counterproductive to a civilized society. Watching the news this morning I saw a couple of individuals committing theft, vandalism, ... (click for more)

Roy Exum: The Saturday Funnies

Some time ago The Saturday Funnies started a “CLICK HERE” section at the end of the weekly jokes and stories. With today’s magnificent media, they are easily available and now I find a good half of the “Funnies” that arrive in our emails are videos. This week I received one video that I believe should be shared with everyone in times such as this. Because I am so gleeful over ... (click for more)