Wiedmer: Firing defensive line coach not enough for Vols to knock off Bama

Tennessee Athletics photo by Kate Luffman / Alabama running back Najee Harris (22) scored three touchdowns and gained 97 yards on 20 carries Saturday afternoon as the Crimson Tide cruised to a 48-17 win at Tennessee.

So which assistant is University of Tennessee football coach Jeremy Pruitt going to part company with now?

This question is posed in the aftermath of both the Volunteers' 48-17 loss to Alabama inside Neyland Stadium on Saturday and Pruitt's removal of former defensive line coach Jimmy Brumbaugh after last weekend's 27-point home loss to Kentucky.

Angered over the D-line's play in that first home loss to the Wildcats since 1984, Pruitt said he'd take over coaching that position group the rest of the season.

Well, come the 103rd meeting of the Vols and Crimson Tide, Alabama running back Najee Harris ran for three touchdowns and 96 yards, the UT defense gave up 587 total yards - slightly more than Bama was averaging entering the game - and forced no turnovers.

This after the Big Orange had given up 187 rushing yards and 294 total yards to the Wildcats, who kept that same UT defense on the field for most of the game because of numerous turnovers committed by the Vols, including two interceptions Kentucky returned for touchdowns.

"We have not played very good in the secondary for five games," Pruitt said after the latest setback. "We've got to figure it out."

To be blunt, the defense hasn't been very good, period, over the past six quarters. The Wildcats turned a 17-7 halftime lead courtesy of those two pick-6 scores into a 34-7 win in which their offense completely dominated the final half.

Then came Saturday, when Alabama ran roughshod over the Vols' D throughout, and that was without Tide star receiver Jaylen Waddle, who was lost for the season on the game's opening kickoff with a serious ankle injury.

Bama's march to a national championship was derailed last fall to some degree when quarterback Tua Tagovailoa hurt one of his ankles against the Vols, an injury he never fully recovered from before being lost for the season in mid-November due to a hip injury at Mississippi State.

Yet even without their most dangerous offensive threat, the Tide rolled over UT for the 14th straight time since Nick Saban came to Bearsville in 2007. All of which caused the posing of a postgame question to Pruitt regarding whether or not his current program is gaining any ground on his former employer during his third season atop Rocky Top.

"I can assure you that the gap is closing," he said, before adding, "not that you could see it on the scoreboard today."

Maybe it is. Maybe it takes a coach as experienced and successful as Pruitt was as an assistant at Alabama, Florida State and Georgia to see it.

When Tennessee defensive lineman Matthew Butler was asked how his position group had changed for the better over the past week with Pruitt replacing Brumbaugh, he replied: "In some small ways, but sometimes a little goes a long way."

Holding Alabama's rushing attack to 17 fewer yards than Kentucky when Missouri held those same Wildcats to 98 rushing yards on Saturday would seem to go a long way in saying almost no improvement on the defensive line was made the past week, with or without Brumbaugh. Especially when the Tide passing attack went for 417 yards.

In fact, when Butler was asked if he felt Tennessee had closed the gap on Alabama, the senior replied, "In some ways yes, in some ways no."

Admittedly, it's a massive gap to overcome. Of these 14 straight Tide triumphs, only two have come by fewer than 14 points. Eight have been by more than 30 points. The average margin of defeat for UT? Try 25.7 points.

But the gap doesn't appear to be shrinking. The average point spread in the three games Pruitt has coached against Bama is exactly 30 points. And should that one-sidedness continue for another season or two, athletic director Phil Fulmer might decide it's time to replace Pruitt.

To be fair, it's not like anyone in the Southeastern Conference has had much success against Saban except bitter rival Auburn in the Iron Bowl. The Tide coach hasn't lost to an SEC East foe in a decade. If your job security is tied to beating Alabama, you may have picked the wrong job, even though Pruitt said of the daunting challenge: "It's why I wanted this job."

Thanks to dismissing Brumbaugh, he now sort of has two jobs and UT now has an off week to get better between its 2-3 all-SEC start - including three straight defeats to Georgia, Kentucky and Alabama by an average of 28 points - and the five league games that remain.

"We've got to figure it out," Pruitt said. "How do you play at a high level? How do you do it over and over again?"

As Saban's assistant, Pruitt was a daily witness to those "hows."

But as Butler also noted with wisdom beyond his years: "If you daily compare yourself to somebody else, you're going to live a pretty miserable life."

Especially, it seems, if you're Tennessee comparing yourself to Alabama on the football field.

photo Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.