If you want to make a case for the Tennessee Vols keeping Jeremy Pruitt as its football coach, you do it with dollars, not victories.
That has become increasingly apparent with each loss — the most recent of which was to Auburn, 30-17 Saturday night at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Firing Pruitt would cost UT about $13 million. Firing the rest of his staff would push the total buyout close to $20 million.
That’s a lot of money even when business is booming. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, UT’s athletic department is experiencing more gloom than boom. And there’s no windfall in sight.
So, you shake your head, grit your teeth, and brace yourself for the defeats to come. It’s the fiscally responsible thing to do.
That’s the case for keeping Pruitt as UT’s coach after this season. It’s the only case after the 2-5 Vols continued their downward trend.
Auburn, which hadn’t played in three weeks, shook off a lethargic start and handed the Vols their fifth consecutive defeat. At least, this loss shouldn’t have been as painful to its fan base as a 34-7 loss to Kentucky or a 48-17 loss to Alabama.
Whether the margin of defeat is big or small, UT fans should be numb to losing by now. After all, what’s the difference in a 2-4 record and a 2-5 record? And a glass-half-full fan would say, “Well, we’re one game closer to the end.”
The end likely will be 3-7 with lopsided losses to Florida and Texas A&M and a victory over Vanderbilt. That would leave the Vols with a 16-19 record after three seasons under Pruitt.
It’s worth noting that UT often didn’t look like a 3-7 team against 23rd-ranked Auburn.
The Vols wasted little time establishing their superiority against the Tigers, who were playing their first game since they routed LSU 48-11 three weeks ago. In fact, Auburn looked as though it hadn’t played defense in three months.
Tennessee’s offensive line blocked with more force than it had since UT’s second game, a 35-12 victory over Missouri. Its blocking set the tone, opening running lanes for Eric Gray, who had 88 yards combined running and receiving on the Vols’ first three possessions, which resulted in a 10-0 lead.
Even when a bad team is playing well, it’s important to remember that it’s a bad team. And a poorly coached one as well.
The Tigers quickly bounced back to tie the game. They scored their first touchdown on a 54-yard touchdown pass from Bo Nix to Anthony Schwartz, who was ignored by a Tennessee secondary that suffered yet another breakdown in a season of breakdowns.
Consider that another bad lapse for a bad team. The worst lapse was yet to come, though.
UT’s offense reasserted itself in the second half with a 10-play, 63-yard drive. But the 10th play was a disaster.
You might wonder why Tennessee would bother passing since it was running roughshod over the Tigers. However, Auburn safety Smoke Monday didn’t have a problem with the play call by UT’s brain trust. He picked off a Jarrett Guarantano pass and returned it 100 yards for a touchdown to give Auburn a 20-10 lead.
Tennessee fans could take consolation from a final touchdown drive led by freshman quarterback Harrison Bailey. But the game was decided before the Vols worked their way downfield on short passes and runs.
Maybe, Bailey will get a chance to play more next Saturday against winless Vanderbilt against whom the Vols likely will end their losing streak.
And if UT is looking for more reasons to be optimistic, it can think about how much money it will save by keeping Pruitt as its coach.
John Adams is a senior columnist. He may be reached at 865-342-6284 or [email protected] Follow him at: twitter.com/johnadamskns.