There was one point in the offseason that the overwhelming consensus was that the Tennessee football team would be 3-0 as they head into their SEC slate in week four.
Two games into the 2019 season and the Vols have been forced to realize a harsh reality: Going 1-6 heading into the back-half of the season is a real possibility.
Stranger things have happened, but a 0-2 start against two non-Power Five foes doesn’t exactly scream optimism with games against Florida, Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi State still on the docket.
Regardless, Tennessee has proven that they are in no position yet to be looking ahead to a tough SEC slate. Their focus now shifts to the Chattanooga Mocs, their first and only FCS opponent on the 2019 schedule.
The Mocs (1-1) return to Neyland Stadium on Saturday for the first time since the 2014 season, a game the Vols won 45-10 in Butch Jones’ second season.
As for 2019, Chattanooga is lead by first-year head coach Rusty Wright and are coming off of a 41-20 loss at the hands of Jacksonville State last weekend.
Being from northeast Alabama, Chattanooga is a team that Pruitt is familiar with.
“When you look at (Chattanooga) this week, I’m very familiar with these guys, especially their offensive and defensive coordinators,” Pruitt said. “I’ve known both guys for several years, and they really do a fantastic job. I’m familiar with the conference they pay in.
“If you look at them, they’re very well coached (and) have good players at all three levels on the defensive side of the ball.”
On offense, the Mocs are lead by Mississippi State transfer quarterback Nick Tiano, who has thrown for over 400 yards and one touchdown through two games this season.
For the third-straight week, Tennessee’s defense will face a dual-threat signal-caller in Tiano.
“Their quarterback is a big guy that can spin the ball out there and hurt you in the run game,” Pruitt said. “What they do offensively, there is a lot of quarterback run to it. They put a lot on the quarterback, and they have big guys up front. They have returning running backs and a couple of good wide receivers too.”
The good news for the Vols defensive front going up against an experienced Chattanooga offensive line is that the group appeared to take a big step forward versus BYU last week, resulting in two sacks and a pair of tackles for loss.
Both of those sacks and TFLs were by junior LaTrell Bumphus. He was one of two young defensive players that stood out to Pruitt in the BYU loss.
“I thought there were two guys on our defense this week that really just try and do what the coaches ask them to do,” Pruitt said. “They don’t try to do anything else. I think LaTrell (Bumphus) is one. When we started fall camp, he was fourth team. We’ve got to get more guys doing things like LaTrell.”
In addition to Tiano, the defense will also be tasked with stopping the Mocs’ run game, headed up by freshman running back Ailym Ford, who rushed for 127 yards and a touchdown against Jacksonville State, good for an average of nearly six yards per carry.
On the other side of the ball, Tennessee’s offensive line is also coming off of a better outing than what they displayed against Georgia State in week one.
The Vols’ run and pass game benefited too, with junior running back Ty Chandler racking up more than 150 yards on the ground and redshirt junior quarterback Jarrett Guarantano having time to throw the ball.
They will be facing a Chattanooga defense that ‘gets after it,’ according to Pruitt.
“Defensively, they have some guys upfront,” Pruitt said. “They have two safeties that were preseason all-conference. They have a returning inside linebacker that had 98 tackles last year. These guys are used to winning. They played Jacksonville State last week and got around those guys pretty good.”
For Tennessee, Saturday presents an opportunity for more growth, something they’ve had to do quickly and in the hardest of ways. Pruitt says the team will continue to improve.
“These guys are going to continue to improve,” Pruitt said. “We’ve got lots of young guys in our program that maybe weren’t ready to play in that first game, they may not be ready to play in the second game. That’s kind of where we’re at as a program; there’s lots of opportunity there.”
The Vols and Mocs will kickoff for the 42nd time on Saturday at noon inside Neyland Stadium. The game will air on SEC Network.