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


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