Tomorrow is the first ever meeting between Tennessee and West Virginia. It is not however the first ever meeting between Tennessee and West Virginia quarterback Will Grier. In fact, most Tennessee fans would probably just as soon never see Will Grier again because he’s the author of one of the most painful moments in recent Tennessee Football History, and there have been plenty of those in recent years.
Like many times over the past decade, Tennessee had Florida all but beaten in the 2015 game in Gainesville. All the Volunteers had to do was stop the Gators on Fourth and 14 and they’d get the ball back and be able to run out the clock. It was a win that Tennessee needed, not to mention struggling coach Butch Jones.
Enter the magic of Will Grier. Not only did he complete the pass to covert the first down, his wide receiver made a move to sideline, down the sideline and into the end zone sending Florida to a win in route to an SEC East Championship. That was just one of five Fourth Down conversions Grier and Florida converted during the game and we should have known then that was a metaphor for what Tennessee Football was going to be under Butch Jones.
Grier was suspended later that season for using a banned performance enhancing substance. He was suspended for a year, left Gainesville and resurfaced in West Virginia where he’s the perfect fit for coach Dana Holgersen’s version of the “air raid” offense. Grier had the Mountaineers sailing last year until he was injured and missed the rest of the season. WVU limped to a 7-6 finish that ended with a thud in a loss in something called the “Heart of Dallas Bowl” to Utah.
He’s back and the talent on this West Virginia team has some Mountaineer fans hoping to party like it’s 1988. In the history of West Virginia Football, the school has had two unbeaten regular seasons, 1988 and 1993. There are the natural comparisons to the ’88 team as the season approaches as that team had the best Quarterback in school history in Major Harris. The best until Will Grier arrived that is. Grier unlike Harris is a legitimate NFL talent, but don’t tell that to any diehard WVU fan. They’ll swear that Major Harris was Moses parting the red sea in disguise.
The issue is that in 1988 West Virginia was playing basically a Northeastern Independent schedule. Yes, I know they beat the hell out of Penn State that year in a nationally televised CBS game which had Joe-Pa steaming mad, but this West Virginia team will face much better opponents including Oklahoma, TCU and a riddle Holgersen can’t seem to solve in Oklahoma State. There are layup wins like Kansas and next week’s game against FCS Youngstown State and while I think N.C. State Coach Dave Doren is a complete rube whose achieved beyond his actual coaching talent, West Virginia still must play the Wolfpack in Raleigh in two weeks. 12-0 seems a bit out of the question, but 10-2 is not but make no mistake winning 10 games means beating Tennessee, and given the state of Tennessee’s program now that means beating Tennessee handily by at least 15 points.
And that brings us back to the loser of that fateful 2015 game in Gainesville, former West Virginia assistant Butch Jones. Jones is now gone. Fired by now fired Athletic Director John Currie last November, Jones is now taking notes and serving as an “analyst” for Nick Saban at the University of Alabama.
Hey I get not wanting to stick around Knoxville after you’ve been fired. There’s not much reason to be here anyway, and when you don’t have a job here, there’s really no reason to live here. But, Jones becoming one of Saban’s “video bitches” seems a bit odd. I almost would have rather coached high school than do that.
Perhaps Jones is hoping this move rebuilds his career like it has with others including Lane Kiffin. Kiffin’s career was a complete disaster after being fired by USC, but serving on Saban’s staff opened his eyes on how to run a program, and the opportunity to be a head coach again. He also found the right fit away from the spotlight. Being a part of Saban’s on-field staff has lauched Kirby Smart and Jeremy Pruitt (we’ll get back to him) into head coaching jobs, and this year’s offensive coordinator at Alabama is Mike Locksley, a vagabond former college head coach also in need of a career rebuild who prior to taking the OC job was an “analyst” for Saban.
For Jones to get another shot at being a head coach he’s likely going to have to take an inevitable opportunity to serve as an on-field assistant coach at Alabama. There will be such an opportunity as working for Saban is notoriously difficult and assistants look for any opportunity to take what they’ve learned and use it somewhere else. Jones is also going to have to grow up and get some tougher skin.
His previous head coaching jobs were at Central Michigan, and let’s be honest who the hell cares about Mid-American Conference football anyway, and at Cincinnati which at the time was in the Big East. Cincinnati is a blip on the radar in a town with both professional baseball and professional football.
He had neither the experience nor the tough skin that being the coach at Tennessee requires. You are the highest paid person in the state and there’s no taking your kids to dinner on a random Wednesday night because you won’t get any peace. You live in a fishbowl where every move is constantly watched and criticized. Jones couldn’t assemble a staff worth a crap, had coordinators best suited for FCS football programs, had a soft team that kept getting injured due to a lack of a solid strength and conditioning coach, and couldn’t stop turning dopey phrases like numbering his teams (i.e. Team 120, Team 121) instead of just answering questions at press conferences. His strength was recruiting but last year’s 4-8 season exposed the fact that you can assemble all the talent in the world and if you cannot coach them, you have only one option, watching video at Alabama.
So in comes Jeremy Pruitt. Pruitt will be the first to tell you that just 15 years ago he was a kindergarten teacher in Alabama. In fact, he’ll be the only person to tell you that because outside of him no one cares. My first impression of him was that he’s a kindergarten teacher in Alabama, but the more I hear him talk, the more he grows on you and he deserves a chance. You can’t bury a guy before he’s ever coached a game.
Hired by the Godfather Phil Fulmer, who stabbed Currie in the back to get the A.D. job he was pissed off he didn’t get in the first place (ask Johnny Majors about Fulmer’s sharp knife), Pruitt is exceptionally popular right now in Tennessee because he hasn’t lost a game yet and he’s not Butch Jones. He does appear to have instilled some toughness in this program which they need.
Now, let’s see what happens when they play a game. He’s coached for some of the best in the business running the defense for Saban, Jimbo Fisher and Mark Richt. He’s obviously right out of the Saban taskmaster book reportedly having ruffled feathers at Georgia by criticizing his boss behind his back and Georgia’s lack of first class football facilities. That won’t be an outward issue for him at Tennessee as he like Saban doesn’t allow his assistant coaches to talk to the media. It’s the speak with one voice idea that came from Bill Parcels and Bill Belicheck down the food chain and is frankly outdated and unworkable in this wired and wireless world.
Being a defensive coordinator is one thing. Being over an entire program particularly one like Tennessee is a totally different thing. We still need to see how he manages a game, something he’s never done and an area in which Butch Jones was completely clueless. We also need to see how he manages 100 different personalities and you’re going to a get quick look at that tomorrow afternoon.
Pruitt won’t name a starting quarterback having narrowed it down (at least by the depth chart) to incumbent returning starter Jared Guarantano and Stanford graduate transfer Keller Cryst. Guarantano is a noted head case. Last year, when he didn’t get the starting quarterback job he pouted on the sidelines during the Georgia Tech game, sitting on the bench by himself and refusing to engage with starter Quinton Dormandy and his coaches.
When he finally got the job later in the season due to injury he showed absolutely no leadership skills, famously throwing his helmet on the field after his final pass against South Carolina went incomplete sealing another Tennessee loss. I get it he’s young, but he needs to grow a pair and start being a man. Again, he would have never been on my team after announcing his commitment on a video board in Times Square. No thanks.
Cryst wasn’t brought here as a grad transfer from Stanford to sit the bench. He’s better suited to Pruitt’s pro-style offense (and thank God the dumb zone read is gone) and if he doesn’t start tomorrow it won’t be long before he does. My belief is that the Tennessee coaches have a plan for Quarterback and that includes Cryst being a stop gap this year until they get a recruit ready. In other words, while they can say all the right things in the newspaper, they know like I do that Guarantano is a head case whose days at Tennessee are numbered.
I’ve long said that there are certain fan bases in this country that have an over inflated view of just how good their football program is. Va. Tech may be the worst (no, Hokie fans you are not now nor are you ever going to win a National Championship so just quit talking about it and try to win the ACC). West Virginia’s fan base is also one of the worst, but Tennessee isn’t far behind.
It should make for an interesting game. The difference to me is up front. West Virginia has an experienced offensive line and Tennessee’s is a wreck thanks to Jones. It doesn’t matter who plays quarterback for Tennessee on Saturday because it is unlikely he’ll remain upright long enough to get anything accomplished and if that happens, expect the noise from the “country roads” to get even louder.