By Jimmy Hyams
When I evaluate a coaching performance, I examine the team’s ceiling, then how many times that team came close to reaching that pinnacle.
In the case of Tennessee, the Vols were at their best with a win at ranked Auburn and a home win over ranked Kentucky.
Tennessee executed well in many facets in those two games.
How many other times did UT play near its peak?
Maybe South Carolina.
On six occasions, Tennessee didn’t play well at all – the six defeats by at least 25 points. The Vols also underperformed in a 14-3 win over Charlotte for homecoming.
Tennessee did OK in wins over ETSU and UTEP.
Thus, only three times out of 12 did Tennessee perform at a level close to its potential.
That doesn’t make me inclined to say a team that went from 4-8 to 5-7 overachieved – not when the 4-8 team grossly underachieved.
I’ll be the first to acknowledge the offensive line was an albatross. But UT coached around it in moving the ball effectively against Auburn, Kentucky and South Carolina with a sharp passing game and a more imaginative run game – and yes, you can be creative in your run game.
It’s those seven games where UT was blown out or played poorly that concern me.
That’s more than 50% of your games.
Tennessee had some injuries, but not as many as the previous two years. It was playing with 30 four or five star players most of the season.
Its recruiting ranking the last five years added up to an average of 13; Vanderbilt’s was 51. Yet, it looked like the Commodores had more talent, right?
How is that possible?
Perhaps it’s because Derek Mason has been at Vandy five years and Jeremy Pruitt was in his maiden voyage as a head coach.
Whatever the reason, I expected Tennessee to play better this season and be more competitive against Florida and Missouri and Vanderbilt.
If UT was a tired team in late November, why weren’t Missouri and Vanderbilt?
Did Pruitt practice the team too hard in November, trying to establish his culture of toughness?
Were players worn late out because they had not practiced hard under Butch Jones the last two or three years?
Did the team lack mental toughness, leading to fatigue?
Tennessee had enough talent to be at least a .500 team at quarterback, running back, receiver, tight end, defensive line and linebacker.
It did not along the offensive line or secondary. When two true freshmen start early in the season, that’s an indictment on players who have been in the program for at least two years. And while I think Bryce Thompson, Trey Flowers and Alontae Taylor will be good players, playing as a freshman was certainly a learning experience.
Can Tennessee improve on its 5-7 record next year? Maybe, but I wouldn’t chalk up BYU and UAB in the win column.
UT won’t be any better next year if it doesn’t improve along the line of scrimmage. The offensive line can be better if … Trey Smith returns, Brandon Kennedy plays well at center and Wanya Morris is a stud who can play at or near the level of Smith when Smith was a true freshman.
The defensive line loses three senior starters who each had their best season in 2018: Kyle Phillips, Shy Tuttle, Alexis Johnson.
Backups contributed very little.
So how can you expect the defensive line to be better?
That’s why I see another 5-7 season for the Vols, unless the 2019 recruiting class is outstanding.
Tennessee needs more speed, more strength, more athleticism and more mental toughness to show improvement over this past season.
Can the 2019 recruiting class provide all of that?