ATHENS, Ga. — Jeremy Pruitt left the University of Georgia nearly three years ago with a mixed legacy because of the fiery demeanor that made him a polarizing figure as the Bulldogs' defensive coordinator in 2014 and 2015.
The coach with a reputation for being no-nonsense and all about football left the Georgia campus with a different side on display Saturday night.
Pruitt gripped the side of a lectern and took a long pause after second-ranked Georgia beat his first Tennessee team 38-12 in front of 92,746 at Sanford Stadium.
"It kind of gets me excited," Pruitt said before going silent as his lip quivered and his eyes welled up with tears. "Excuse me. You know, these guys on this team have had a lot of negatives go toward them for a long time. And I'm proud of them the way they fought."
If Tennessee (2-3, 0-2 Southeastern Conference) was supposed to roll over and play dead on the Bulldogs' home field, the Volunteers missed the memo. A week after committing six turnovers in an embarrassing home loss to Florida, they kept the Bulldogs (5-0, 3-0) on their toes into the fourth quarter.
After a mostly stagnant second half, though, the Bulldogs put together a brilliant late scoring drive to cement the outcome after two straight Tennessee touchdowns injected some uneasiness into the home crowd during the fourth quarter.
Georgia ate nearly eight minutes with a 75-yard touchdown march that included three third-down conversions. D'Andre Swift's 14-yard run capped the drive, and Rodrigo Blankenship's extra-point kick put Georgia ahead 31-12 with 3:31 remaining.
The series served as the exclamation point on a victory that appeared certain early in the second half before the Vols roared back with a 37-yard touchdown pass from Jarrett Guarantano to Josh Palmer with 5:14 left in the third quarter. Guarantano threw a 35-yard touchdown pass to Ty Chandler with 11:10 to go in the fourth to cut it to 24-12.
"To me, there's no moral victories," Pruitt said. "I'm not going to stand up here and be proud that we lost. But I said all along I was worried about the way we played, the way we approached the game. If we will start doing the way we did this week every single week, the other stuff will take care of itself."
Tennessee is off next weekend before returning to competition Oct. 13 at Auburn. Georgia hosts Vanderbilt next weekend.
A late fumble by Tennessee freshman running back Jeremy Banks served up Georgia's last touchdown of the game — a 15-yard run by backup quarterback Justin Fields — that made the final outcome appear more lopsided than the game felt just a few minutes before.
Banks' fumble was Tennessee's only turnover of the day, a sign of progress considering the Florida debacle a week before. Georgia's defense simply refused to budge early, allowing only three first downs in the first half.
"You can't do that," Pruitt said. "You can't put the defense out there that much. You've got to make some first downs."
The Bulldogs dominated time of possession as a result and wore down a defense that put forth an impressive effort.
"They played their butts off," Tennessee offensive lineman Trey Smith said of the Vols' defense. "We put them in a couple of bad situations, but they showed a lot of resiliency and a lot of fight."
Georgia's first touchdown encapsulated both the Vols' defensive progress and their frustrating season to date.
Tennessee outside linebacker Darrell Taylor roared past tight end Isaac Nauta on Georgia's second series of the game for a strip-sack of quarterback Jake Fromm. The ball bounced right to Nauta, who scooped it up and ran for a 31-yard touchdown.
"You've got to block the guy," Georgia coach Kirby Smart said after the game. "I don't live on luck, and that was all luck on that play."
What first looked like a key Tennessee defensive stop turned to a 6-0 Tennessee deficit, all on the same play.
"I couldn't believe it happened," said Taylor, who had three sacks in a game for the first time in his collegiate career.
Tennessee forced four fumbles in the game but recovered none — a fortuitous twist of fate for a coach not depending on luck for his hopes of a return trip to the College Football Playoff and the national championship game.
"We know we didn't play our best and we are still looking to do that," said Smart, who is in his third season at Georgia and, like Pruitt, a former assistant to Alabama coach Nick Saban. "But the guys know that, and they want to get there."
Georgia's 8-of-14 clip on third-down conversions helped cover up some of its imperfections and spoiled an otherwise positive effort from Tennessee's defense. Three of those conversions came on a 12-play, 70-yard touchdown drive that put the Bulldogs ahead 17-0 just before halftime.
"Defensively, we've got to find a way to get some stops," Pruitt said.
But for all his team lacked in the final box score and for all it is still learning on the field, Pruitt saw what he cares most about on Saturday during his trip back to his former employer.
"Our guys kept fighting, which means we're headed in the right direction," Pruitt said. "That excites me. I'm going to get real emotional."