Saturday Football: Rocky times on Rocky Top and Ohio State reloads for another Playoff run
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Good morning and happy Thursday! Slow week in college football, huh? Oh wait, not really. Tennessee fired head coach Jeremy Pruitt after allegations of major recruiting violations came out. You’d better believe we’ll be diving into that story today!
Also, we’ll discuss Ohio State getting several key players back and what it means for the Buckeyes’ chances in 2021. Then, we’ll take a look at LSU getting spurned once again by a defensive coordinator. Let’s get started!
(Editor’s note: In the trivia section in Monday’s newsletter, we incorrectly identified Kalen DeBoer as the head coach at San Diego State. He is the coach at Fresno State. Sometimes the trivia even fools us!)
ROCKY TIMES ON ROCKY TOP
Tennessee is an utter disaster once again after firing Jeremy Pruitt. Where do the Vols go from here?
When the Tennessee Volunteers fired coach Butch Jones during the 2017 season and embarked on a disastrous coaching search, it seemed unlikely that there would ever be a messier search. Greg Schiano was seemingly about to get hired until Vol fans revolted. AD John Currie was fired. Then Phillip Fulmer took his job and hired Alabama DC Jeremy Pruitt.
Well, now Pruitt has been fired for cause following an internal investigation that alleges many recruiting violations took place under Pruitt’s watch. Multiple assistants were fired for cause too. And, Fulmer has stepped down, to boot. So, now the Vols find themselves in the same situation they were in a few short years ago. Let’s dive into the latest bizarre situation on Rocky Top:
- The Vols didn’t exactly mince words with Pruitt on his way out. School chancellor Donde Plowman had some scathing comments for Pruitt during a press conference. Then, in a bizarre press conference from Fulmer, he noted that recruiting had been good under Pruitt. What a weird thing to say when you’ve just fired a guy for recruiting violations. Anyway, newly hired defensive coordinator Kevin Steele was named interim coach. He served as Auburn’s interim coach last month during the transition from Gus Malzahn to Bryan Harsin, which was a bizarre situation in and of itself. Despite now having several openings on the staff, Steele had yet to be cleared to make any hires as of Wednesday. Saturday Down South’s Connor O’Gara makes a case for the Vols to keep Steele around as a steward for the head coaching position while the potentially severe penalties for the recruiting violations are served (sort of like Matt Luke at Ole Miss). Don’t expect Pruitt to let his name be dragged through the mud, though. His attorney issued a very strong response in the wake of Pruitt’s firing.
- Of course, the Vols couldn’t just stop at this level of drama. Radio host Dan Patrick said he’d heard the Vols were handing money to recruits in McDonald’s bags. Multiple people at Tennessee have denied that allegation, of course. Still, that didn’t stop the Vols from getting roasted on social media. Tennessee students embraced the trolling, though. The Rock on Tennessee’s campus was painted with a McDonald’s logo on it.
- That wasn’t the only message The Rock was used to send, though. It was also painted to say “Freeze please!” to call for the Vols to hire Liberty coach Hugh Freeze. Considering he’s the reason Ole Miss was hammered by the NCAA a few years ago, that might not be the best idea. Vol Twitter agrees that Freeze should be the guy. ESPN’s Chris Low thinks the Vols should at least reach out to Lane Kiffin to see if he’s interested in the job. SEC Network’s Chris Doering said former Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn would be perfect for the job. Dan Patrick wonders if current NFL tight end (and Tennessee alum) Jason Witten would be a good fit. Heck, even former Tennessee RB (and current New Orleans Saints star) Alvin Kamara took to Twitter to playfully lobby for the job.
- Media members have been hammering the Vols program. CBS Sports’ Dennis Dodd says the Tennessee program thinks it is more relevant than it is. Saturday Down South’s Matt Hayes went as far as to say the Vols will never be elite again. SDS’s Connor O’Gara wrote that, even by SEC standards, Pruitt’s fall from grace was staggering. SDS’s Mark Nagi said fans are disappointed because things were supposed to be different this time. Paul Finebaum was taken aback by an “absolutely staggering day” at Tennessee. Kentucky’s Mark Stoops and South Carolina’s Shane Beamer also weighed in on the situation on Rocky Top.
- This situation has wreaked havoc on Tennessee’s recruiting and roster. 5-star OL Wanya Morris, who played for the Vols the past two seasons, had already entered the NCAA transfer portal before Pruitt was fired. He announced he’ll transfer to Oklahoma. There was mixed reaction to Pruitt’s firing from commits on social media. 4-star WR Jordan Mosley was the first player to decommit. OL Colby Smith was the second. Then, 4-star signee Dylan Brooks, who was Tennessee’s highest-rated 2021 signee, asked for a release from his Letter of Intent. 2022 DE Jimmy Scott also decommitted.
Whew. That was quite a section. But this is quite the story. And, it might not be going away any time soon. The Vols will likely want to get a new athletic director in place before hiring a new football coach. As O’Gara pointed out in one of the (many) links above, that could lead to the Vols sticking with Steele for 2021 (and possibly beyond). National Signing Day is coming up in early February, too, so the Vols’ tailspin could continue to get worse before it gets any better.
- The SEC figures to have some more great QBs on display in 2021. From returning stars like JT Daniels and Matt Corral to potential first-time starters like Bryce Young and Emory Jones, there will be some intriguing names to watch. Saturday Down South’s Matt Hinton ranks each of the SEC quarterbacks heading into the 2021 season.
- The coaching carousel was in full swing this offseason. Now that the dust has (mostly) settled in areas outside of Tennessee, a bunch of new head coaches need to hit the ground running. Bleacher Report’s Kerry Miller put together a list of what each new Power 5 head coach’s top priority should be this offseason.
- Which returning head coaches have the most work to do? There figure to be plenty of coaches at the FBS level on the hot seat entering 2021, but which guys are on the hottest seats? Bleacher Report’s Brad Shepard put together a list of coaches who could be looking for new jobs this time next year.
- The deadline for underclassmen to declare for the NFL Draft has passed. Some teams were understandably hit harder than others by early departures. ESPN’s Harry Lyles Jr. broke down which teams were hurt the most by underclassmen leaving and which fared the best.
OHIO STATE RELOADS
Headlined by WR Chris Olave, Ohio State has some major talent returning in 2021. Are the Buckeyes title contenders?
There was an expectation after the 2020 season came to an end that Ohio State would see a plethora of players declare for the 2021 NFL Draft. High profile prospects like QB Justin Fields, RB Trey Sermon and CB Shaun Wade are taking that path, all announcing that they’d forgo a return to Columbus.
The bigger story, though, is who has decided to return to play for the Buckeyes next season. The headliner is star receiver Chris Olave, who hauled in 50 receptions for 729 yards and 7 touchdowns last year. His return will guarantee that Ohio State has one of the best receiver units in college football next season, and will make life for new starting quarterback C.J. Stroud much easier. As Saturday Tradition’s Ryan O’Gara writes, Olave’s return creates a great problem for Ryan Day and the offense in 2021. But the wide receiver isn’t the only one to make the big decision to come back:
- Two other star offensive players are coming back. Olave was the biggest surprise, given his high draft stock and performance throughout the 2020 season. But two other offensive stars have decided to come back to Columbus. Tight end Jeremy Ruckert wants to stick around for one more season after making some big catches in the postseason, including an impressive one-handed grab against Alabama in the national title game. Ohio State’s offensive line received a big boost when starter Thayer Munford announced that he’ll be suiting up for the Buckeyes for one more season.
- How about some defensive line help? Defensive line has often been a strength in Columbus, and it should be again next year. Three major contributors have decided to make the decision to return for the 2021. Haskell Garrett is back after a breakout year and could really improve his draft stock with an additional year. Tyreke Smith and Antwuan Jackson have also decided that another season with the Buckeyes would prove to be beneficial. There’s never a lack of talent at Ohio State along the defensive line, but Larry Johnson has a lot to work with during the offseason.
- What’s it mean for Ohio State in 2021? Ohio State was always going to be the favorite to win the B1G again next season, even with the departure of Fields and other stars on both sides of the football. But having so many starters and other contributors back on a team that made a national championship push in 2020 should seriously help the Buckeyes’ chances to win it all. Can Day lead Ohio State to the College Football Playoff for a third straight year? One FOX Sports analyst already has the Buckeyes penciled in as one of the four teams to make the field.
In an era in which we typically see anyone with any draft stock whatsoever leave college, some of Ohio State’s biggest stars are returning to play an additional year at the college level. It should be really fun to see all these guys back in action next fall, even if their B1G opponents don’t think so.
JUST FOR FUN
For today’s quiz, let’s test your knowledge of FBS geography. There are 11 states that are home to exactly two FBS programs. Can you name them?
Scroll down for the answers to today’s quiz.
LSU’S SEARCH CONTINUES
LSU once again got spurned by a potential coordinator. How long until the Tigers make a hire?
After parting ways with DC Bo Pelini following the 2020 season, the LSU Tigers embarked on a search to find their next defensive coordinator. They thought they were getting Cincinnati’s Marcus Freeman, but he called an audible and ended up at Notre Dame instead.
So, the Tigers’ search continued. Then, this week, they were spurned by another candidate they thought they were close to hiring. Let’s get you up to date on the latest news out of Baton Rouge:
- The Tigers were targeting Saints assistant Ryan Nielsen for the job. Nielsen played at USC, where he was coached by LSU head coach Ed Orgeron. The problem? The Saints didn’t sign off on Nielsen leaving. Instead, he got a new title and new contract in New Orleans, where he’ll serve as the assistant head coach and DL coach under Sean Payton.
- So, where will the Tigers turn next as the search continues? Coach O will likely want to get a new coordinator in place as soon as possible. SB Nation’s “And The Valley Shook” page put together a list of possible candidates, including Georgia co-DC Glenn Schumann and several others.
After the Tigers struggled in Pelini’s one year at the helm of the defense, this is a hire Coach O needs to get right. LSU has plenty of potential entering 2021, but it can’t afford another lackluster defensive performance. We’ll see where the Tigers turn moving forward.
Here are the answers to today’s quiz. The 11 states with exactly two FBS programs are:
- Arizona (Arizona and Arizona State)
- Arkansas (Arkansas and Arkansas State)
- Iowa (Iowa and Iowa State)
- Kansas (Kansas and Kansas State)
- Maryland (Maryland and Navy)
- Massachusetts (Boston College and UMass)
- Nevada (Nevada and UNLV)
- New Mexico (New Mexico and New Mexico State)
- Oregon (Oregon and Oregon State)
- Washington (Washington and Washington State)
- West Virginia (West Virginia and Marshall)
QUOTE OF THE DAY
“I think he has to have thought about (retiring), and he could have walked away three years ago. It looked like the greatest moment ever after the biggest play maybe in Alabama history (Tua Tagovailoa’s 2nd & 26 completion to DeVonta Smith to beat Georgia in the CFP title game in overtime). But he hung on and it looked like a questionable call until this year.
“This is another one of those moments where I’m sure he has thought about it, but I think he’s thinking about it less now than he’s ever thought before. Yes, you’re right. History is unkind to coaches in their 70s. But I don’t think Nick Saban is really caught up in that. He is looking down on the rest of college football and if it happens that way, I’m sure he can deal with it. But I think he’s more concerned with leaving a great team on the field than he is walking away to try to time it correctly.”
– SEC Network’s Paul Finebaum thinks Alabama coach Nick Saban still has a few years of coaching left in him. Saban turned 69 this past season, but after winning the 2020 title and going undefeated, it’s clear he still has a lot left in the tank.
TWEET OF THE DAY
The Florida men’s basketball team handed Tennessee a shocking 75-49 loss on Tuesday night. After the game, the team’s Twitter account became the latest to troll the Vols’ football program for McDonald’s-related recruiting violation rumors.