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AP photo by Butch Dill / Tennessee quarterback Jarrett Guarantano celebrates after scoring a touchdown against Auburn on Nov. 21.

At some point during his Monday afternoon press conference, Tennessee football coach Jeremy Pruitt made the following observation regarding his team's 30-17 loss at Auburn last Saturday night: "We played much better in this game than we did against Missouri."

Lest one forget, the Vols defeated Mizzou inside Neyland Stadium on Oct. 3 by a score of 35-12 to win their eighth straight game dating back to last season.

Shockingly, as this incredibly unpredictable, uncertain season slowly winds to a conclusion, UT hasn't won since, the Big Orange now stuck in a five-game losing streak in which all five defeats have come by double-figures, the average margin of those losses a dispiriting 21 points.

The Vols have supposedly never before suffered five consecutive losses by double-figures.

So what gives?

Are Pruitt and his staff in over their heads, particularly since Tennessee has been crushed in the third quarter of all five of those defeats, outscored by a total score of 71-7 in that period and 108-14 over the final halves of those five games?

Has the talent level dipped so dramatically that even previously woeful Arkansas — which outscored the visiting Vols 24-0 after intermission — is a cut above athletically?

Or is this at least a wee bit due to COVID-19 and all the limitations, especially practice time, that it has placed on this team, which was always going to have to rely on newcomers, especially on the defensive side of the ball and at wide receiver?

The coronavirus pandemic has certainly hurt UT's preparation, but it's hurt everyone, so that can't be used as a legitimate excuse. Instead, let's start with the coaching angle. Yes, Georgia and Alabama are a cut above the Vols in both talent and coaching, but especially talent. And catching up to either of those programs, especially the top-ranked Crimson Tide, might be an impossibility as long as Nick Saban runs the show in Houndstoothville.

Auburn is also now 5-2 on the season heading into this week's Iron Bowl against Bama, so maybe the Big Orange Nation shouldn't have expected to win on the Plains. But that doesn't explain losses to Kentucky and Arkansas — teams the Vols should be equal to if not better than — and a lot of UT concerns come to the surface.

After defeating UT in Knoxville for the first time since 1984, UK has gone 1-3, losing to Missouri, Georgia and by 63-3 this past weekend at Alabama. As for the Razorbacks, after trailing the Vols 13-0 at intermission, the Hogs rolled 24-0 in the second half, appearing to be both more talented and better coached before losing their next two starts.

In fact, not since Mizzou has UT appeared stronger than its opponent, though the Vols did win the statistical war against Auburn in terms of total offense (464 to 385) and time of possession (31:29 to 28:31).

But they also saw fifth-year senior quarterback Jarrett "Gift-wrap" Guarantano pretty much guarantee UT's fifth straight defeat with a 100-yard pick six that put the Tigers on top by 10 in the decisive third period.

Yet when the depth chart was announced later Monday, not only was Guarantano named the starter for Saturday night's since-postponed game at Vanderbilt, but Brian Mauer, who didn't even make the trip to Auburn, was written in as his backup.

If you really believe that true freshman Harrison Bailey is your future QB — and he certainly engineered a nice TD drive late at Auburn — why aren't you starting to groom him for next season?

There is one area that the Vols appear to remain at the top of the SEC heap. Perhaps no program, however accidental and unfortunate this fact, has knocked out the opponent's star players as often as UT.

You could go back to South Carolina quarterback Anthony Wright blowing out his knee inside Neyland Stadium in the early 1990s. But merely consider that since 2012, South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore, Georgia running backs Keith Marshall and Nick Chubb, Alabama's Jaylen Waddle and Tua Tagovailoa, as well as Auburn running back Tank Bigsby, have all exited games against UT never to return that day.

All but Lattimore were injured in the opening half, and all but Tagovailoa, and probably Bigsby, were lost for the remainder of the year.

Coincidence? Certainly. But it is unusual.

What was also unusually chippy for a third-year coach was Pruitt's testiness toward a reporter's question regarding what the fans should think about the direction of the program.

"That ain't my job, guys," said Pruitt a few minutes after the Auburn loss. "My job is to coach. If you want to ask me a football question, ask me a football question."

A radio show in Alabama on Monday asked SEC Network analyst Paul Finebaum something of a football question regarding which fan base should be more concerned at the moment — winless Penn State or Tennessee.

He chose the Big Orange Nation, explaining his reasoning thusly: "(PSU coach James Frankin) has at least proved capable of winning in big-time college football. Jeremy Pruitt can't make that claim."

Regardless of how he feels about the fans being concerned about the direction of the program, Pruitt's job is to win big-time college football games. If he doesn't start doing more of that, beginning with December home games against Florida and Texas A&M, his next job will be to clean out his office at UT to make room for the next guy.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com

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