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Until Jeremy Pruitt lost his first game as Tennessee's football coach this past Saturday against No. 17 West Virginia, the last Volunteers coach to lose his debut game running the Big Orange was Johnny Majors in 1977.

The last Tennessee coach to face a ranked opponent in his first game on the job was, well um, it seems that no one previously starting his career with the Vols ever had faced a ranked opponent in his opening game as coach.

So when Pruitt trotted out the old coaching line Monday about "the first week of the season to the second is when you usually see the most improvement with every football team," he might have added something about the schedule dramatically improving over the next two weeks.

Not to trash East Tennessee State before it arrives at Neyland Stadium for Saturday's 4 p.m. Vols home opener or Texas-El Paso, which visits Neyland at high noon the following week, but neither the Buccaneers nor the Miners are remotely as dangerous as the Mountaineers, who might boast the best passing attack Tennessee will face all season.

Still, for as much as the schedule should help Pruitt get his first and second Big Orange victories in his second and third games on the job, something West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said after his team's 40-14 victory might make it even tougher for these Vols to beat any succeeding ranked team down the road.

Noted Holgorsen of his team's somewhat sluggish first half on both sides of the ball: "We didn't know what to expect out of (Tennessee)."

That element of surprise was at least part of the reason ESPN's Kirk Herbstreit picked the Vols to upset the Mountaineers.

On a podcast three days before the game, Herbstreit said: "Poor old Tennessee, they've got a new coach, nobody knows any of their players, and they don't have a chance. Be careful, Tennessee sneaking around. I think Tennessee upsets West Virginia in week one."

But now every future UT opponent has video on the 2018 Vols. By the time they welcome Florida to Knoxville on Sept. 22, first-year Gators coach Dan Mullen will have three games to study on the Vols. Sneaking around will be far more difficult.

Beyond that, when you lost by 26 points on a neutral field despite the element of surprise, one wonders how much chance you really have to stun much of anyone within a stacked SEC that had 13 of its 14 teams win their opening games by an average of 32.8 points.

Again, Tennessee, at least by the Associated Press preseason rankings, played the third toughest opponent of the league's 14 schools. Only No. 9 Auburn, which toppled No. 6 Washington 21-16, and LSU, which battered No. 8 Miami 33-17, faced higher-ranked foes.

And Miami was clearly overrated. Conversely, West Virginia may be underrated.

Regardless, the Vols will have to improve dramatically on both sides of the ball if they're to sneak around and stun even one of the six remaining league opponents who were either ranked or received votes in the AP preseason poll.

Pruitt also noted Monday that he needs to coach better than he did against WVU. That may or may not be true, but the very fact that he admits he made a mental mistake late in the first half is a vast improvement over the last two or three coaches who came before him.

"We punted the football when we had fourth-and-4 with a minute and 58 seconds left," he recalled. "I should have let the (play) clock run out. I thought that was a critical mistake. We could have run the clock down to a minute and 30 seconds, and they ended up getting a field goal there."

No coach gets it perfect, win or lose. Players are similarly human.

But Pruitt also believes that "we have guys who will learn a lot from this past game, and I think we will see a lot of improvement with these guys over the next couple of weeks."

The monstrous task for this year's Big Orange model is to improve enough to sneak in a victory or two against the far stronger SEC foes who await following the next couple of weeks.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com

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