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Friday Forum: How could Tennessee return to even standing with Florida?

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The Vols have been ducks dragged by trucks more often than not of late. How could that change?

NCAA Football: North Texas at Florida Atlantic Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Here is a short history of the Florida-Tennessee rivalry over the last 15 years:

One time, a duck pulled a truck.

14 other times, it got ran over.

The Vols’ 38-28 win in 2016 aside, Florida has been dominating its erstwhile SEC East rival since Urban Meyer’s arrival in Gainesville. Tennessee, which once held 10-0 and 13-2 leads over Florida in a series that dates to 1916, has now lost as many of its last 15 meetings with Florida as Kentucky and Vanderbilt have — and the Vols trail the Gators in the all-time accounting, 29-20.

And a litany of coaches set to rejuvenate Tennessee have all failed to do so. Tennessee’s last 10-win campaign came in the last years of Phil Fulmer’s reign, and included a 59-20 stomping in Tim Tebow’s first SEC start and wins over Vandy and Kentucky by a combined three points. Fulmer’s departure permitted a revolving door of mediocrity-at-best regimes: Lane Kiffin, Derek Dooley, Butch Jones, and now Jeremy Pruitt have combined to cobble together zero 10-win years and just two nine-win campaigns, each of which went off the rails by midseason before being saved by late-year surges.

The 2020 season is just the latest Tennessee faceplant in recent memory, and possibly not even the greatest. Pruitt was somewhat surprisingly given a contract extension after the Vols opened 2019 with a loss to Georgia State that turned into a 2-5 start, then closed with six straight wins, a streak that turned into a selling point in the long offseason.

And Tennessee started 2020 2-0, defeating South Carolina and Missouri ... but has since dropped five straight, all by double digits, and taking its last two losses to Arkansas and Auburn in November after blowing double-digit leads.

It’s hard to say what 2020 Tennessee — still, improbably, quarterbacked by Jarrett Guarantano, though with Pruitt promising to get freshman Harrison Bailey some snaps against Florida — does well, except lose. Given that games with Florida and Texas A&M are the only ones currently remaining on its schedule, this could be the first official Vols team to finish at fewer than four wins since 1924, when they mustered victories over Emory and Henry, Maryville, and Carson-Newman before scoring just 15 points in their final five games, all losses.

At that point, Tennessee was still two years from hiring Robert Neyland. If the 2020 Vols go another two years without hiring a coach who can at least approach his legacy, I suspect they may well sink even further into irrelevance.

That obvious play — hiring a better coach — is probably Tennessee’s path back to meaningfully participating in major college football. But just who that coach will be is hard to scry, as it feels like Tennessee has failed every which way it can.

If we characterize Pruitt as a failure so far, which is probably as unfair as it is premature, then Tennessee has failed twice since Fulmer with the hot young first-time college head coach archetype (Kiffin, Pruitt) and twice with more established names from mid-major levels (Dooley, Jones). Kiffin, Dooley, and Jones all had offensive backgrounds, but Pruitt was a defensive coordinator by trade; Kiffin was by far the best recruiter of the bunch, but Pruitt wasn’t supposed to be shabby, and Dooley and Jones were supposed to have program-building savvy to make up for lesser classes.

Fulmer, who inherited — or engineered the inheritance of — Johnny Majors’s program, was probably the only Tennessee coach of the last 20 years who combined top-level recruiting with high-level play (even though Fulmer’s background is as a line coach more than an offensive mastermind). But the closest thing that Tennessee’s had to a candidate like that since Fulmer left coaching was probably Greg Schiano, whom public outrage forced an extraordinary backtrack on, and the most proven candidate Tennessee was credibly linked to was probably the guy who will stand on the visiting side in Neyland on Saturday.

So Tennessee’s best hope would probably be identifying the next version of Dan Mullen — a program-builder who can recruit a bit but scheme more, and who will long-haul a turnaround if necessary — and snapping that coach up. But battle-tested SEC stalwarts like Mullen are rarely available, and so the Vols’ next coach might come from a tier lower in terms of either league prestige or titles obtained. Is that Charlotte’s Will Healy? Coastal Carolina’s Jamey Chadwell? An assistant like Florida’s Brian Johnson?

I don’t know, and I’m fairly glad as a Florida fan that I don’t have to care.

But I really think that nailing its next hire is Tennessee’s best path out of its current morass, and I don’t see many other viable ones.

As this is a Friday Forum, now I get to ask: Do you?