College football coaches like to talk about identity. Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt has talked about his Vols team developing an identity all season. While no single game defines any one team’s entire season, some are more important than others. Sitting at 3-4 overall, and 1-3 in SEC play, this weekend’s game at South Carolina stands as Tennessee’s most important game of 2018.
Why South Carolina is Tennessee’s Most Important Game in 2018
The Vols have been wildly inconsistent in Pruitt’s first season. Mistakes, both mental and execution, marred the Florida and Alabama games. The Vols looked like a different team against Georgia. And Tennessee’s win against Auburn two weeks ago was a major boost to the program. So where will this team go as it heads down the stretch run of its schedule?
A Bowl Play-In Game?
With the 2017 season–the worst season in the 121 year history of Tennessee football–behind the Vols, expectations for this season were low. Almost everyone associated with the program would have taken a bowl season if offered to start the 2018 campaign. Saturday’s game against South Carolina might be a defacto play-in game for a bowl berth.
The Vols have five games remaining and need three wins to become bowl eligible. The Vols will beat Charlotte, a middle-of-the-pack Conference USA team that lost to MTSU and Massachusetts on the road. That means the Vols need two wins against their remaining four SEC opponents. Those are South Carolina, Kentucky, Missouri, and Vanderbilt. A win in Columbia on Saturday takes a ton of pressure off this Tennessee team. They’d have two shots at home to seal a bowl bid with a road contest against Vandy beyond that.
Make no mistake, Tennessee is unlikely to be favored in any of those games, with the possible exception of the Vanderbilt game. The longer the Vols go in search of a season-validating accomplishment, the more pressure will build up. While it won’t be the flashiest of wins, a road win against the Gamecocks will go a long way for this Tennessee team’s psyche.
Bowls are important for teams like Tennessee. More so than recruiting, the additional practice time that a team gets in preparation for a bowl is critical to the development of a young roster in the overhaul phase of a program.
Not Wasting The Chance
Of course the flashiest win so far this season was at Auburn two weeks ago. At the start of the season, everyone identified the five game stretch of Florida, Georgia, Auburn, Alabama, and South Carolina as the defining stretch of the season. That was as obvious as it gets. But here they are, at the end of that stretch, with a chance to be 2-3 against those teams. Sure, both Auburn and South Carolina are having disappointing seasons. And certainly, Tennessee would like to be 4-1 or 3-2 coming out of that stretch. But when you are completely overhauling a program, you take the wins you can get.
And make no mistake, the transition from the Kiffin/Dooley/Jones era to the Pruitt era is a complete overhaul.
The Vols win against Auburn bought them some breathing room against Alabama. And they used every bit of it. It’s critically important for this team to bounce back again against a South Carolina team on the road. A loss against South Carolina essentially squanders any momentum or positive take-aways from the Auburn game. It makes it a one-off, not an indication of things to come.
A Zero-Sum Game?
Everyone knows the SEC is a brutal football landscape. In its current construct, it’s the toughest and most competitive league in the history of college football. And with that, any one team’s success comes at the detriment. South Carolina’s aforementioned disappointment will only grow with a home loss to Tennessee.
The Gamecocks still need three wins to get to a bowl as well. And with Chattanooga and Clemson as their non-conference opponents, that means that they need two wins against Tennessee, Mississippi, and Florida. That’s going to be hard to do without a win against the Vols at home on Saturday.
Remember, South Carolina only has eleven games currently on their schedule due to a canceled game against Marshall in the wake of Hurricane Florence.
When you compete for recruits against every team in the league, you look for any advantage. A win against South Carolina, and Pruitt can say each team is heading in different trajectories. Additionally, if Tennessee can help keep South Carolina out of a bowl, they’ll have a leg up on getting ready for the 2019 season with the extra practices.
With Florida, Georgia, and Kentucky all bowl eligible and Missouri a likely bowl team, it’s important for the Vols separate themselves from another team.
Back To Identity
But it all comes back to establishing an identity. The knock on Butch Jones was that he couldn’t coach up the talent he brought into Knoxville. Pruitt’s reputation is built around being a tough-nosed, developmental football coach. Pruitt wants players that show toughness and are invested in winning football.
At this point in the Pruitt era, Alabama isn’t the right test for this team. Neither was Georgia or West Virginia. But South Carolina is. If the Vols are who they want to be at this stage of the program overhaul, they’ve got to show it Saturday night.
Saturday will be a chance to see how far Tennessee has come since its opening weekend loss to West Virginia. And it’s embarrassing fumbling and stumbling conference opener against Florida.
Can Tennessee find that toughness that it takes to win conference road games? Can they put the Alabama beat down behind them?
Is this the same old Tennessee team from the past ten years? Or is the program finally, truly, headed in a new direction?
That’s a lot of questions for one game. That’s why this Saturday is Tennessee’s most important game of 2018.
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