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Rocky Top is in turmoil; Is that a good, or bad, development for BYU?

Tennessee hosts Cougars on Saturday hoping to avoid its first 0-2 start since 1988

Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt yells at side judge Eduardo Balbis in the first half of an NCAA college football game against Georgia State, Saturday, Aug. 31, 2019, in Knoxville, Tenn.
Wade Payne, AP

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — As the debate rages in Provo whether or not Tennessee’s stunning 38-30 loss to Georgia State last Saturday was a good, bad, or indifferent thing for BYU, second-year passing game coordinator Aaron Roderick can only shake his head and wonder why.

“It’s still Tennessee,” Roderick said. “It’s still an SEC team.”

And an angry one at that.

The 0-1 teams square off for the first time ever Saturday at 5 p.m. MDT at Neyland Stadium, with the Cougars looking to avoid their first 0-2 start since 1995 and the Vols their first since 1988.

Think BYU was embarrassed by the way it played in the second half of last Thursday’s 30-12 loss to archrival Utah? Consider Tennessee’s plight. The Vols lost to a team that won just two games last year and was picked to finish last in the East Division of the Sun Belt Conference.

“I don’t think we played our best ball,” second-year UT coach Jeremy Pruitt said after what some called the most humiliating loss in program history. “I’m not blaming the kids. Like I told the players in the locker room, everybody needs to look in the mirror … and say, ‘What can I do better for our football team?’ And I am going to start with me.”

What’s not up for debate on the banks of the Tennessee River is that UT is in turmoil.

Pruitt said in Wednesday’s SEC teleconference that wide receiver Jordan Murphy and cornerback Terrell Bailey have left the team. Neither played in the opener, although Murphy was under fire with the fans, and perhaps the school, for making a joke of the fact on Twitter that Tennessee paid Georgia State $950,000 for the game, only to lose.

A player expected to make a big impact on UT’s defense in 2019, cornerback Bryce Thompson, was suspended indefinitely last month following his arrest on a charge of misdemeanor domestic assault and did not play against the Panthers.

The Vols held a players-only meeting Sunday and vowed to stay together and not let another upset happen again, junior safety Theo Jackson told reporters on Tuesday.

“But we can’t let that get in the way of our next opponent, BYU,” Jackson said.

So Pruitt’s second season at Rocky Top is off to a rocky start.

But that’s of little concern to the Cougars, who have their own issues to solve, most notably their turnover problems and inability to slow Utah’s rushing attack.

“Tennessee, especially if they watched the Utah game, will try to run the ball on us,” said BYU defensive end Trajan Pili.

Lost in the shuffle, according to Roderick, is that Tennessee still has a lot of really good players, four- and five-star recruits who had lots of options out of high school.

“I was asking our team today: How many of you guys got offered by an SEC team?” Roderick said. “Because I haven’t had a job offer from one, and I don’t think we have very many players on this team who have had scholarship offers from an SEC team.”

Roderick said the Vols will be a “really focused football team” that will be galvanized after taking a beating on social media for nearly a week.

“But we have a lot of confidence,” he added. “This is a game we can win if we are ready to play. This is all about our execution, and not as much about the opponent.”

BYU offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes, who coached against Tennessee a couple of times when he was at Auburn and LSU, said BYU “will be ready to play regardless” of UT’s shocking loss last week.

“I have a great deal of respect for that Tennessee staff, particularly coach Pruitt and the defensive staff,” Grimes said.

Pruitt has returned the praise, calling BYU “a really good opponent coming in here that traditionally is a very tough football team.” The former defensive coordinator at Alabama, Georgia and Florida State called the Cougars “an experienced, older team” that plays hard. He said sophomore quarterback Zach Wilson reminds him of Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, the former Heisman Trophy winner.

“He can run around, extend plays and make all the throws,” Pruitt said. “… He’s a guy that we have to find a way to get on the ground.”

BYU quarterback Zach Wilson (1) outruns a pair of Utah defenders during the first half of an NCAA football game at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019.
BYU quarterback Zach Wilson (1) outruns a pair of Utah defenders during the first half of an NCAA football game at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019.
Colter Peterson

BYU defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki said UT has a dangerous quarterback as well. A redshirt junior, Jarrett Guarantano threw for 311 yards and two touchdowns against GSU, but made costly mistakes, like Wilson did against the Utes.

“You have two teams that are pretty upset about their performances in the first week,” said BYU coach Kalani Sitake. “A lot of teams make great improvement from week 1 to week 2. Let’s see who makes the best adjustments and is ready for this one.”