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College football: Tennessee - how does it keep reaching new lows?

USA TODAY SPORTS logo USA TODAY SPORTS 9/1/2019 Dan Wolken, USA TODAY
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When word began to circulate Saturday morning that the 42-foot boat taking part in one of college football’s great traditions had caught on fire and began to descend into the Tennessee River, it would have been pretty easy for Tennessee fans to dismiss the idea of a bad omen on the brink of a new season.  

After all, hadn’t the Vols already sunk as low as they could go this past decade? Hadn’t Vol fans stepped up on that fateful Sunday in late November 2017 and declared themselves the true saviors of the program, canceling the hire of Greg Schiano and eventually running athletics director John Currie out of town so that championship-winning coach Phil Fulmer could ride in and restore the Big Orange glory of two decades ago? With Saint Phil and his hand-picked coach Jeremy Pruitt now in charge, wasn’t it about to feel like 1998 all over again in Knoxville? 

But as Neyland Stadium emptied Saturday afternoon, with the Vols scoring a meaningless touchdown with two seconds left as Georgia State players and coaches celebrated the most stunning victory of their lives, 38-30, Tennessee fans had to ask themselves: How did we get here?

WINNERS AND LOSERS: Starting with Willie Taggart and Florida State

WEEK 1 OBSERVATIONS: Tennessee stunned in worst loss ever

Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt yells to his players during a game against Georgia State. © Wade Payne, AP Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt yells to his players during a game against Georgia State.

With all due respect to Georgia State, which looked nothing like a team that finished 2-10 a year ago and was picked to finish near the bottom of the Sun Belt Conference, it is impossible for a program like Tennessee to lose that game unless something is seriously screwed up internally. 

The Vols have been bad before, suffered losses to lesser programs that would drive fans crazy. It’s what happens when you get left at the alter by Lane Kiffin, hire an unproven coach in Derek Dooley who was way over his head in the SEC, then go all-in with to Butch Jones, whose good qualities as a college coach were undercut by his paranoia and inability to deal with the pressure of a highly-scrutinized job. 

That very churn, in fact, is why, in a year where there were very few good options available, that Currie was interested in someone like Schiano — experienced, solid, built a good program from nothing at Rutgers, had been knocked around a bit in the NFL, wasn’t going to panic or start questioning himself through tough times. 

We can argue about whether that would have been a good hire or a bad one. At this point, it's ancient history and impossible to know. 

But the idea that a desperate fan base or a sports radio host or even Fulmer — who was trying to scheme his way back into the mix even though he had no administrative experience — saw themselves as more fit to fix Tennessee football via Twitter mob than the professionals who understood the totality of the situation was always a fever dream.

It should have been very clear that Tennessee in 2017 was not the right job for a first-time head coach, and while it’s still within the realm of possibility that Pruitt can salvage this, Tennessee looked so soft and was so severely outplayed in the second half that it is legitimate to now question whether he knows what he’s doing at all. 

So where does this go? Will the next 11 games turn out so poorly that Tennessee finds itself back on that coaching carousel next year? Will Vol fans just emotionally check out after years and years of disappointments? Will Fulmer end up back on the sidelines before it's all said and done?

The aftershocks of a loss as cataclysmic as Georgia State will linger for awhile, and it may be weeks before we understand their full effect. All we really know at the moment is that the Vols are back in an all-too-familiar position: At 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 

Florida State: Almost without fail, you know by Year 2 of a coach’s tenure which direction things are going to go. That phenomenon is even more pronounced at the blueblood-type programs, where even amidst some challenging circumstances, there’s almost always a strong base of talent already on the roster waiting to be tapped into. (Seriously, take a look at the records — nearly every coach who has had a great tenure in the modern era has won at least nine games by Year 2.) For that reason, and many others, Florida State fans needed to see something reassuring from Willie Taggart's team after going 5-7 last year to end a streak of 36 straight seasons playing in a bowl game. They didn’t get it. The Seminoles had an 18-point lead late in the first half only to implode on both sides of the ball in a 36-31 home loss to Boise State. It’s probably not panic time yet, but so far the promises from Taggart about getting things fixed feel a bit vapid. Florida State needs to show it Sept. 14 when it plays in Charlottesville against a solid Virginia team. If they can't win that one, Taggart’s $17 million buyout is going to become a talking point, albeit an unrealistic one. 

Oregon: In his second year as the Ducks’ head coach, Mario Cristobal is doing the big stuff right but getting a lot of the little things wrong, and it’s costing his team and the Pac 12. Cristobal has Oregon recruiting better right now than anyone on the West Coast, which is what must be done to contend for national titles. At the same time, though, games against teams of similar talent are won on the margins. So when you play Auburn on a neutral field and lose a game 27-21 that you once led 21-6, the focus turns to things like two trips inside the Auburn 10 that resulted zero points and some game management mistakes down the stretch like not bleeding the clock with the lead and a bungled sequence of timeouts before an ill-fated fourth-and-1 play. Last season, Oregon blew a sure win against Stanford when Cristobal decided not to kneel on the ball and punt with mere seconds left, instead turning it over and opening the door to defeat. Fans can tolerate a lot, but when this stuff becomes a trend that directly leads to losses, they’re going to notice. 

South Carolina: Beyond being in the uncomfortable position of watching their in-state rivals ascend to true greatness — it was just a handful of years ago, after all, that Dabo Swinney couldn’t beat the Gamecocks — South Carolina fans have had to deal with the indignity of preseason hype being completely deflated by Week 2. Last year, after being tabbed as the darkhorse of the SEC East, it was the realization that Georgia was in a completely different class of football team. This season, it was the promise of having a team loaded with seniors, including four-year starting quarterback Jake Bentley, only to flop completely in a 24-20 loss to rebuilding North Carolina and a new coaching staff led by Mack Brown. That is a really bad loss for a team playing a brutally tough schedule, and Will Muschamp’s fourth season suddenly looks more like a treadmill of mediocrity rather than a breakthrough. 

South Florida: The flip side of scheduling aspirational non-conference games against some of the top programs in the country is that they can leave you feeling angry and embarrassed. For South Florida, starting the season with a 49-0 loss at home to Wisconsin raises some serious alarms about the tenure of Charlie Strong, who won 16 of his first 18 games with the Bulls but has now lost seven in a row. Even at that, five of South Florida’s six wins last season came against losing teams (four by a touchdown or less) and one was against FCS Elon. In other words, once you get past the first year when Strong inherited a veteran team (and a great senior quarterback in Quinton Flowers), there’s just not much reason for optimism. There’s nothing inherently wrong with losing to Wisconsin because a lot of people will do that, but not even being competitive saps a lot of the energy from a critical year for Strong. 

TRENDING TOWARD MISERY 

UCLA: Thursday’s 24-14 loss at Cincinnati sure left a lot to be desired if you had the reasonable expectation that the Bruins would look much better to start Year 2 under Chip Kelly than they did in Year 1. But 218 yards of offense and quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson completing just 8-of-26 passes while committing a couple of horrendous turnovers certainly raises the question about whether Kelly’s offensive genius isn’t as relevant at the end of this decade as it was at the beginning. 

Purdue: After keeping coach Jeff Brohm away from Louisville with a big seven-year, $36.8 million contract, the Boilermakers promptly went out West and lost 34-31 to Nevada on a 56-yard field goal after holding a 17-point lead in the third quarter. Curiously, Purdue left one day earlier than normal for the road trip to supposedly adjust to the 4,500-foot altitude in Reno. In reality, though, you’re better off just arriving the night before as normal if you can’t go through a longer acclimation period. Who knows whether that had anything to do with the late collapse, but it probably didn’t help. 

Virginia Tech: It’s undeniably an angst-filled time around Blacksburg, to the point that athletics director Whit Babcock took to Twitter recently to dispute a talk radio host’s suggestion that Justin Fuente could land on the hot seat this season. The narrative around Virginia Tech is that the bad apples have been weeded out after going 6-7 last season and that the program is now coalescing around Fuente’s guys. But Fuente's guys started 2019 with a 35-28 loss at Boston College, which isn't altogether embarrassing but does nothing to regain confidence of a fan base that thinks this should be one of the best programs in the ACC. 

Missouri: The first mistake they made at Missouri was scheduling a road game at Wyoming. Memo to Power Five athletics directors: Don’t do that. Laramie is a unique kind of place that is worth seeing once, but it is really hard to get to and tough to play a football game in. And if Wyoming has a good team, which it does every now and then, the Cowboys can pop you in the mouth like they did Saturday, 37-31. The only salve for Tigers fans, who bought into the hype that this team might be a tough out in the SEC, is that they’re not bowl eligible anyway due to NCAA sanctions, so what does it matter? 

Ole Miss: You will find a surprising number of Ole Miss fans who believe that the grand plan for their program this season is going poorly enough that coach Matt Luke is replaced by Rich Rodriguez, the offensive coordinator he just hired. But what if the problem with this team is the offense? It sure looked that way in a 15-10 loss to Memphis, as Ole Miss had just 173 yards of offense and got just 2.4 yards per rush against a team that has not been particularly stout on defense the last few years. The Rebels look like a team headed for a slew of ugly, non-entertaining losses this year.  

TOTALLY REAL AND IRRATIONAL MESSAGE BOARD THREADS

“Thinking about entering the fan transfer portal…” - VolNation (Tennessee)

“Who is up to flying a banner over Doak next week?” - warchant.com (Florida State) 

“Well at least the whole SEC East sucks” - The Big Spur (South Carolina)

“Let’s do like K-State and pull Beamer out of retirement” - Tech Sideline (Virginia Tech)

“Wondering if Mark Richt is enjoying retirement or if he has an itch to get back in the game” - Tiger Board (Missouri)

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: College football: Tennessee - how does it keep reaching new lows?

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