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AP file photo by Randy Sartin / Tennessee football coach Jeremy Pruitt led the Vols to a 3-7 record in his third regular season as their coach, finishing the 10-game all-SEC schedule Saturday with a home loss to Texas A&M.

Maybe it will turn out to be nothing, this investigation of University of Tennessee football by the NCAA and the school's own compliance department. Such investigations don't always lead to sanctions. Just ask the basketball folks at the University of North Carolina.

But UNC also wasn't losing many games on the court during a lengthy look-see into questionable academic practices regarding more than one Tar Heels athletic team. In fact, the UNC men's basketball program raised two NCAA title banners during the height of its alleged chicanery.

That's not the case for Tennessee under Jeremy Pruitt. With Saturday's 34-13 loss to No. 5 Texas A&M inside Neyland Stadium, the Volunteers ended the regular season with a 3-7 record. It also marked their seventh straight loss by double figures to any Southeastern Conference opponent not named Vanderbilt.

For comparison's sake, even the dreadful 2017 Tennessee team that produced an 0-8 SEC record — which is also why Pruitt is the current Big Orange boss instead of the man he replaced, one Butch Jones — had three league defeats by a total of 15 points.

After starting 2-0 with wins at South Carolina and against Missouri, this year's team was simply dreadful from that point forward. And pretty much in all areas. Because of that, Pruitt — who now stands 16-19 after three years as the boss of the Big Orange — would probably be on the coaching hot seat with or without an NCAA investigation.

But until Saturday there also hadn't been so much as a whisper of unethical behavior by this coaching staff. No $100 handshakes. No free meals at a swanky restaurant. No gifts of cars or trucks or even so much as a free 10-speed bicycle to the star running back recruit.

No academic embarrassments, either. At least none other than those committed by Pruitt, who when asked on Saturday if he'd read the story about the NCAA looking into his program, replied: "I hadn't seen no article."

Yet as the Aggies turned an early 7-0 deficit into a 21-point win, as the Vols once more performed atrociously in the final half, lots of people suddenly began seeing web posts and news stories that hinted the unavailability of running back Eric Gray and quarterback Brian Maurer — as well as running backs coach Jay Graham and defensive coordinator Derrick Ansley — may have been less about COVID-19 protocols and more about corrupt protocols among UT coaches.

What's equally eyebrow raising is the fact that all of this is being investigated by UT's own compliance department, that the school may even have initiated it rather than the NCAA, which makes you wonder if this isn't an attempt to fire Pruitt with just cause for breaking NCAA rules, which would likely save the school a big chunk, if not all of the $12.8 million it would have to pay to get rid of him without cause.

And whether anyone likes to admit it, almost any Division I school in the country could find at least a few NCAA violations by its coaches — an off-limits meal, a free pair of sneakers, $20 for a player to take his best girl to a movie — if it really wanted to get rid of a coach with cause.

That schools don't often seem interested in such things is likely due to one of two lines of reasoning:

A) There's still some honor among thieves, as in, "We won't ask, and you don't tell."

B) If your own compliance department cracks opens the door just a tiny bit to such violations, the NCAA might later knock that door down and find enough to bury your program under so many sanctions that the next coach can't overcome them.

Either way, whether slogging on with Pruitt or starting in a new direction, Tennessee appears on the edge of having another long-term football mess on its hands, if it's not already there.

To briefly return to Saturday's loss, the Aggies are a much better team under their third-year coach, Jimbo Fisher, than the Vols are under theirs. Sometimes you get what you pay for, and A&M is paying a whole lot more per season for Fisher ($7.5 million) than UT is for Pruitt ($3.85 million).

Fisher may even have them in the four-team College Football Playoff field that will be announced Sunday afternoon. That depends on whether the CFP really penalizes previously unbeaten Notre Dame for being flattened by Clemson in the Atlantic Coast Conference title game.

As Fisher told ESPN after the Aggies' eighth SEC win of the season in nine tries — its lone loss was to top-ranked Alabama: "No team in SEC history has lost but one game and [not] been in (the playoff)."

The coronavirus pandemic has made this far from a normal year, however. And it's not likely the CFP and its television partners would enjoy having an Alabama-A&M rematch in a semifinal rather than a potential Bama-Notre Dame tilt.

None of that may matter half as much to the Big Orange Nation, however, as the concern that they'll be forced to endure another season of Pruitt coaching their beloved Vols.

Asked if he expected to be back in 2021, Pruitt instantly replied, "Absolutely."

Then again, at that moment he "hadn't seen no article" that his employer's own compliance department was investigating his program.

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Mark Wiedmer

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

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