Within the world of Extremely Online Tennessee fans — somewhat affectionally known as Vol Twitter — there’s a deep belief that they saved their program from ruin on Nov. 27, 2017.
That morning, word began to leak out that Tennessee was going to hire Greg Schiano to replace Butch Jones.
Most Tennessee fans and media members barely knew a thing about Schiano other than he had been fired as an NFL coach and that his career record at Rutgers had been 68-67. Regardless, people with loud voices deemed this résumé not good enough for mighty Tennessee, which has been mostly irrelevant since 2007, and actively tried to kill a coaching hire that was all but signed, sealed and delivered. They ultimately succeeded, and the dysfunction wrought on the program that day allowed former coach Phillip Fulmer to execute a bloodless coup, installing himself as athletics director and Jeremy Pruitt as coach.
Saturday should have been a poignant moment for Tennessee fans to assess how it has worked out thus far. As Pruitt fell to 15-15 after a non-competitive 48-17 loss to Alabama, Schiano re-emerged as a conquering hero at Rutgers, leading the Scarlet Knights to a season-opening win at Michigan State.
Obviously, one weekend of results doesn’t close the book on who was right and who was wrong. But from that moment until now, Vol Twitter hasn’t even considered the possibility they might have been wrong or that they might have actually harmed the future of their program.
Rutgers coach Greg Schiano hugs running back Isaih Pacheco (1) in celebration during the fourth quarter against the Michigan State Spartans at Spartan Stadium. (Photo: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports)
Don’t you at least have to think about that now? Schiano has a long rebuild ahead, but it seems like he’s the only coach who knows how to win at Rutgers. Meanwhile, Pruitt is on track to be the third straight football coach at Tennessee who has been unable to threaten the Georgias and Alabamas of the world, which is basically the only thing that matters to the Vols’ fan base.
In the middle of Year 3 for Pruitt, the Vols aren’t making much progress against the elite teams. Meanwhile, Rutgers has new life under Schiano, who broke a 21-game Big Ten losing streak. That confluence of events makes Tennessee No. 1 in the Misery Index, a weekly measurement of knee-jerk reactions based on what each fan base just watched.
FOUR MORE IN MISERY
Penn State: If you’re good at identifying talent, getting those players to sign with you, developing them for the next level and motivating them to compete hard, you’re 90 percent of the way to building an elite program. That’s what Penn State has achieved under James Franklin, but the last 10 percent remains elusive: He flat-out stinks at situational coaching and clock management in close, late-game situations.
It’s been on him several times over the years, like in 2015 against Northwestern when he misused his timeouts, leaving no time for his offense to come back after a go-ahead field goal. Even in some wins it’s been glaring. Take 2018, for instance, when Penn State kept throwing the ball late in the fourth quarter despite having a two-score lead at Indiana and nearly left the Hoosiers enough time to come back. It happens to Franklin again, and again and again — but perhaps the worst was Saturday when all Penn State needed to do to beat the Hoosiers was kneel on the ball and basically run out the clock. Instead, they scored to take an 8-point lead with 1:42 left — enough time for Indiana to tie the game, then win it in overtime on a remarkable two-point conversion, 36-35. For a coach as good as Franklin, this stuff is inexcusable. But it doesn’t seem to be getting any better, which means fans may have to accept that the last 10 percent of being an elite program just isn’t going to happen.
Michigan State: The Spartans were an all-too-frequent guest on the Misery Index over Mark Dantonio’s final few years, but we didn’t really understand the depths to which the program was sinking until Saturday. Brutal doesn’t really even begin to do justice to how bad the Spartans were in their opener against Rutgers, turning the ball over seven times (five via fumble) in a 38-27 loss. There were other problems, too, like managing just 50 rushing yards on 39 attempts. Though it may not have been an inspiring coaching performance, blame here shouldn’t fall on the head of Mel Tucker, who inherited a real personnel mess from Dantonio. When you basically stop recruiting for a couple years in this game, the cliff’s edge isn’t far away. Now Spartans fans can see how long of a climb it’s going to be back to the top.
Kansas: It’s not working. Maybe things are so far gone at Kansas that nobody could make it work. But it seems things are sliding backwards in Year 2 under Les Miles — and given the depths from which the Jayhawks started, that isn’t a good place to be. Kansas’ cumulative scoring margin through four Big 12 games this year is 52-187, which really doesn’t look any different from where the program was under David Beaty or Charlie Weis. Given Miles’ age (66) and the lack of vision offensively that got him fired at LSU, he was always a curious and risky choice to take on this rebuild. So far, fans haven’t seen much that would suggest he knows how to get it done.
Maryland: The attraction for Maryland fans and administrators in hiring Mike Locksley was rooted almost exclusively in recruiting. Locksley gets players — always has, always will — and is particularly strong in the Washington, D.C./Baltimore region where the Terrapins need to keep elite kids at home. But the idea that Locksley was going to be a good overall steward of the program was rooted more in hope than track record, where his 2-26 record at New Mexico highlighted dysfunction on and off the field. Maryland fans have to be a little more nervous about that now after a 43-3 loss to Northwestern to open their season. Recruiting wins are good, but a seven-game losing streak to end last season and a blowout to start 2020 matter more. Locksley deserves patience, but the overall head coaching record next to his name is 6-41.
TRENDING TOWARD MISERY
South Florida: Charlie Strong may go down as one of the worst hires of the decade, not just because he flamed out in three years at USF but because the fallout of that failure seems like it will be long-lasting. Strong’s teams and his personnel got worse each year, which has become even more glaring now in former Clemson co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott’s first season. The Bulls have basically gotten manhandled four times in five games against FBS opponents, with the exception coming in a close loss to Temple. But in a 42-13 loss to Tulsa, South Florida struggled to even get first downs. With Memphis, Houston, Navy and UCF coming up, the Bulls will be heavy underdogs the rest of the season — and a 1-9 record would represent the worst season in school history.
Iowa: When you have as bad of an offseason as the Hawkeyes did, with several former players publicly expressing concern about the racial climate of the program, getting back on the field — and winning games — is usually what helps people move on. In fact, if it weren’t for Kirk Ferentz’s consistency in winning at least eight games games six times in the last seven years, it’s possible he wouldn’t have even been allowed to stay. Iowa’s 24-20 loss to open the season at Purdue doesn’t change the calculus all that much on its own. But what if this becomes a trend? It’s one thing to keep your job by agreeing to some changes after an investigation and pinning the blame on an out-of-control strength coach. But all of that becomes more complicated when the product comes out mediocre on the other side.
FIU: Butch Davis was able to keep the Panthers semi-interesting the last few years, but 2020 has basically been a disaster. FIU has had three games postponed due to COVID-19 issues, and the ones it has played all went the wrong way — including a 19-10 loss to Jacksonville State on Friday. The Panthers, whose three losses have come by a combined 14 points, became the first FBS team to lose to an FCS team this season (albeit not many FCS teams are playing at the moment). They also got out-rushed 285-72, indicating a physical mismatch.
TOTALLY REAL AND IRRATIONAL MESSAGE BOARD THREADS
“Dear Pandemic – End this season” – Volnation.com
“Can we raid some Division III team’s offensive line?” – Spartantailgate.com
“Could the best high school team in California/Texas beat us” – phog.net (Kansas)
“Epic fail by our coaching staff. Dumber than dirt.” – BlueWhiteIllustrated.com (Penn State)
“Our problem is our 1948 junior high offense needs to go!!!” – hawkeyereport.com
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