10 takeaways: How bad can it get at Tennessee?

Throughout his career, Tennessee athletic director Phillip Fulmer has earned the reputation as a relentless backstabber. That began when he took the Tennessee head coaching job from Johnny Majors in the early 1990s, angling while Majors was recovering from heart surgery.

Later, Fulmer consistently attempted to undercut a procession of Tennessee coaches — Lane Kiffin, Derek Dooley and Butch Jones — and also played grand maestro in the coup to unseat athletic director John Currie last year. For decades, Phillip Fulmer’s reputation has revolved around consistently and persistently operating to maximize the full glory, attention and financial benefit of Phillip Fulmer.

Someone get embattled Vols coach Jeremy Pruitt a Kevlar vest and tell him to watch his back. It only makes sense that Fulmer is going to cover up his own administrative failings to pull off one final machete through the spine and take over an utter disaster of his own creation.

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If history is any guide, expect Fulmer to begin lining up to take over as the head coach in Tennessee in the next few weeks. Pruitt’s Vols dropped to 1-3 after getting hammered by Florida on Saturday, 34-3, and are almost assured to start 1-6 and won’t be favored until, likely, Nov. 2 against UAB.

Tennessee has no identity, no clue and no cohesion under Pruitt, who has looked overmatched from his opening press conference. There’s little empirical evidence in year two that will change, as many fans have flipped to that bizarre vortex where they are rooting for losses to expedite Pruitt’s departure. Tennessee has had recruiting success, but all those star rankings don’t guarantee guys play hard. And Tennessee is a program with no oxygen, relevant only by its weekly self-created disasters and Pruitt’s unfortunate misuse of historical references.

Tennessee’s last coaching change ended with the ouster of Currie and administrative upheaval that made many veteran SEC athletic officials debate as to whether Tennessee had ousted Auburn as the league’s most dysfunctional program.

There are still divisive factions running amok at Tennessee. Booster Charlie Anderson badly wanted Pruitt as the coach and didn’t think that Dan Mullen had won enough for the job, as the records dump of Tennessee’s athletic department from that time reads like a diary of dysfunction. Booster John “Thunder” Thornton wanted Fulmer back desperately as athletic director, as he like many at Tennessee are so wed to the past that it’s ruining the athletic department’s future.

New Tennessee football coach Jeremy Pruitt, right, receives a personalized jersey from athletic director Phillip Fulmer during his introductory news conference Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017, in Knoxville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Steve Megargee)
New Tennessee football coach Jeremy Pruitt, right, receives a personalized jersey from athletic director Phillip Fulmer during his introductory news conference Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017, in Knoxville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Steve Megargee)

When big-money boosters are puppeteering athletic departments, it usually ends up working out much like, well, the Haslam family running an NFL team.

Tennessee’s last coaching change may appear seamless compared to what the university faces in the wake of Fulmer hiring Pruitt. Mind you, Currie had gone out and courted Mike Leach, who was likely to leave Washington State for the job. (This was after a public coup essentially ended Greg Schiano’s candidacy.) Fulmer also interviewed Mel Tucker, who is off to a strong start at Colorado.

Instead, they hired a coach that Mississippi State passed on, much because Fulmer’s world view remains trapped in 1990s football. Pruitt’s hire is an attempt to jam a VHS of his own glory days back on the school.

This current overmatched Tennessee staff is a curdling cesspool of Fulmer’s own creation. The final salvo of administrative malfeasance was letting Pruitt hire Jim Chaney from Georgia as offensive coordinator. Tennessee is years behind catching up to rivals like Georgia and Alabama, and attempting to play the same style on offense and eventually surpassing them is about as savvy a strategy as hiring Antonio Brown’s life coach. Pruitt made the classic mistake of so many Saban disciples, attempting to copy and paste The Process and expecting similar results.

To fire Pruitt and his staff would cost Tennessee north of $15 million, as Fulmer green-lighted three-year contracts for Chaney and defensive coordinator Derrick Ansley. We shouldn’t underestimate how broke the Vols are in the wake of cash deficits from season ticket issues and empty stadium seats, which are compounded by significant debts on facilities projects and pressures on annual revenues. To get a true start on a reboot, Tennessee would also have to fire Fulmer and hire a real athletic director – not one who wears coaching gear to work and gets NCAA wrist slaps for jumping into offensive line drills in practice.

Managing a hundred-million dollar budget takes savvy and experience, and Fulmer’s presence is a giddy delight to the rest of the SEC athletic directors. With Fulmer around, they know it’s highly unlikely that Tennessee will remove itself from the underachieving, sputtering punchline that it’s turned into. A non-threatening Tennessee is good news for the Floridas, Georgias and Alabamas, who all have one less game to worry about each season.

Self-awareness has never been Fulmer’s specialty, so he may have no idea that he’s the athletic director the others are hoping will stick around to suffocate an underachieving brand.

And he also likely has no idea that coaches and administrators around the league are taking bets on when he coronates himself hero to return to the sideline. (Who can forget Fulmer’s wondrously tactless press conference at the announcement of Currie’s firing, treating a dark moment for the university like a bowl hype press conference. Watch it and try not to wince as he introduces his family, it’s more awkward than someone shot-gunning a beer at a wake.)

Just so Fulmer knows, the running joke around the league is that they expect him to wait until Tennessee clears the difficult portion of its schedule before he coronates himself.

Fulmer, forever attempting to augment the legend of Fulmer, will of course wait until Tennessee gets pummeled by the likes of Georgia, Mississippi State and Alabama before naming himself coach.

That sets up best for him to succeed relative to the depths that he’s pushed Tennessee football down to. Around the SEC, they’re already giddy to see him at the press conference.

Pac-12’s self-sabotage

The Pac-12 continues to sputter along, its parity eliciting self-inflicted wounds that undermine the conference.

With USC already knocked out of the national conversation and playoff picture by losing at BYU, the Trojans upset No. 10 Utah on Friday night. The No. 10 Utes represented the Pac-12’s best College Football Playoff hopes, as Cal remains the only undefeated team in the league after both Arizona State and Washington State lost late Saturday.

With Oregon squandering a 21-6 third-quarter lead to Auburn in the opener and Washington falling at Cal in Week 2, the Pac-12’s top-end playoff hopes crashed quick. Utah’s stout defense and experience at quarterback (Tyler Huntley) and tailback (Zack Moss) gave them the Pac-12’s best remaining hope.

But on an improbable night in the Coliseum, third-string quarterback Matt Fink’s three-touchdown performance bailed out the Trojans. Fink played in relief of Kedon Slovis after he left with an apparent head injury. USC is 3-1 in a year that Helton needed to navigate a difficult schedule to keep his job in the wake of a 5-7 season.

Washington State’s paper mache defense always makes them tough to take seriously on the national level. And after their coughing up a 32-point second-half lead to UCLA, that persistent skepticism appears justified.

This leaves the Pac-12 likely with no teams in the top 15, which doesn’t project well for when the first CFP rankings come out on Nov. 5. The cannibalization of parity continues to a league that lags further and further behind.

Wisconsin flexes on Michigan

Lost some amid the free fall of Michigan and Jim Harbaugh was a vintage performance by Wisconsin in their evisceration of the Wolverines.

Paul Chryst’s bounce-back year is rocketing ahead, as the Badgers appear to have two aspects they lacked last season – a consistent defense and more balance on offense.

Wisconsin’s defense went 10 quarters without yielding a point before Michigan scored in the third quarter, with the Badgers up 35-0.

On offense, Wisconsin looked like the archetype of what we remember from the vintage teams under Barry Alvarez and Bret Bielema. They pounded the ball down Michigan’s throat, as the star of Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown has dimmed. (Jonathan Taylor continued the historic pace of his career, rushing for 203 yards.)

Wisconsin also looked sharper in the throw game, as Jack Coan hit 13-of-16 passes for 128 yards. Coan did just enough to keep Michigan’s defense honest and, perhaps most important, avoided the penchant for self-destruction that haunted Alex Hornibrook.

The final props in this game go to Paul Chryst. He went for three first-down conversions – including one on the first drive from Wisconsin’s own 34-yard-line that set up the first Badger score.

Cal stymies SEC

While it still strains credulity to envision a path for No. 23 California to reach the playoff, there’s little doubt that Justin Wilcox deserves credit for one of the season’s best coaching jobs so far. Wilcox has delivered the Bears road victories at both Washington at Ole Miss.

Wilcox comes from a defensive background, so it was fitting that Cal closed the Ole Miss game with a goal-line stand. Cal outlasted the Rebels 28-20 after star linebacker Evan Weaver stifled Ole Miss quarterback John Rhys Plumlee on the 1-yard-line to seal the victory.

Wilcox has built the Cal program into an antidote for the free-wheeling Pac-12, as the Bears have won with an identity of defense. If Cal can win at Arizona State next weekend, its Oct. 5 game at Oregon could well end up being a top-15 matchup. Wilcox is the early favorite for Pac-12 coach of the year, as he’s taken Cal from 5-7 to 7-6 to a 4-0 start that percolates with promise.

Pitt gets one back

We were quite critical of Pat Narduzzi’s mathematical misadventures in Pitt’s loss at Penn State last week. So we’ll be quick to credit him for his emergence from the fetal position – he kicked a field goal in the final five minutes down seven in State College – and calling one of the most daring plays of the college football season.

Down by six to UCF, Pitt called a hybrid of the famed Philly Special play on fourth-and-goal with nearly a minute remaining. Pitt receiver Aaron Matthews threw the game-winning three-yard touchdown to quarterback Kenny Pickett with 56 seconds remaining. The play began with a Wildcat snap to tailback A.J. Davis, who flipped it to Matthews, who delivered a strike.

Narduzzi deemed the play Pitt Special, which will surely irk some in Philadelphia. It was a gutsy call that bordered on diabolical, almost as if the conservative play calling last week was the ultimate ruse to set up this play. Regardless, it delivered a signature victory for Narduzzi, who took a Pitt team to Orlando last season and got blown off the field 45-14.

This delivered a much-needed marquee victory for the ACC, as No. 15 UCF entered the game being regarded by some as underrated and one of the better teams in college football. Pitt flustered UCF freshman quarterback Dillon Gabriel into a 25-for-42 start with two touchdowns and two interceptions.

How UCLA toppled Wazzu

Leave it to Chip Kelly to sum up the craziest game of the college football season. “It’s a Pac-12 After Dark Saturday night,” he told ESPN on the field after UCLA’s 67-63 comeback victory at Washington State.

UCLA trailed 49-17 in the third quarter, looking as lifeless as it had in while wheezing to an 0-3 record to start the season. But the Bruins staged a manic rally, with two Washington State fumbles enabling the comeback and two more sealing it.

Led by a gutsy performance by quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson – DTR to all broadcasters and message-board posters – UCLA scored 50 second-half points to seal the season’s most memorable comeback. DTR finished 25-for-38 for 507 yards and five touchdowns. Kelly gushed about him after the game, saying he’s one of the toughest quarterbacks he’s ever had. “He’s just a tough kid,” Kelly said. “He just keeps growing every week.”

Somehow, DTR outdueled Washington State quarterback Anthony Gordon, who threw for a school-record nine touchdown passes. (Houston’s David Klingler has the NCAA record of 11 in a game in 1990.)

Perhaps the most remarkable twist to the finish came when a defensive stand actually proved the difference. UCLA forced two turnovers in the game’s final 2:30, including UCLA’s Keisean Lucier-South stripping Gordon with 59 seconds remaining.

Washington State’s sixth turnover allowed UCLA to enter victory formation and college football in 2019 to have an early favorite for the craziest game.

For Kelly, an increasing sense of skepticism had surrounded the Bruins’ program after losses to Cincinnati, San Diego State and Oklahoma. This gives Kelly’s tenure a much-needed adrenaline shot, as the excitement, quarterback play and energy that were expected to come with Kelly arrived in one overwhelming flourish.

Bonus Pac-12 after-dark

It was only fitting that Anthony Gordon’s touchdown passing binge came in the shadows of Minshew magic taking over the NFL. (And with Minshew on the sideline on Saturday night.) Before Gardner Minshew’s mustache became the buzz of the NFL, he did a one-and-done year at Washington State where he transformed from a mediocre AAC starter at East Carolina to throwing for 4,779 yards and 38 touchdowns in Pullman.

We shouldn’t understate how impressive Gordon’s nine touchdowns were against UCLA on Saturday night. It’s a bit late to call Elias, but it’s a safe bet that’s a college football record for touchdown passes in regulation in a loss. Gordon could have transferred elsewhere, but he stuck around to win the job and has an astounding 21 touchdowns on the season.

Much like Minshew emerged as a remarkable story last year, Gordon has a chance to spin a similar narrative for the No. 19 Cougars. The loss deflates the importance of next week’s supposed marquee game between the Cougars and Utah, which would have been the runaway game of the week if both schools hadn’t lost this weekend.

Auburn, Malzahn look just fine

Auburn’s schedule to open the season looked like a gauntlet that would keep perpetually embattled coach Gus Malzahn with his permanent place on the hot seat lists.

But Auburn is 4-0 after a surprisingly easy 28-20 victory at Texas A&M. The Tigers jumped out to a 21-3 lead and held off a late A&M comeback, as Texas A&M’s run game disappeared into the teeth of Auburn’s massive defensive line. Texas A&M ran for just 56 yards and Kellen Mond continued his uneven season by completing 31-of-49 passing attempts.

The backdrop of this contest was how freshman quarterback Bo Nix would handle his first truly hostile environment, as he debuted at a neutral site and then played in front of two home crowds. Nix was unfazed, as he completed 12-of-20 passes for 100 yards and ran for 38 more. It was more of his presence and composure than his statistics that impressed.

Malzahn is typically reserved, but was downright giddy about Nix’s future. “He’s got something special to him,” Malzahn told reporters after the game. “He’s not your normal freshman. We knew that when we recruited him. One thing that I like is the moment ain’t too big for him.”

Another App State upset

The last time Appalachian State beat a power conference program, it came on the road on a blocked field goal in the final seconds. That came at Michigan in 2007, one of the iconic upsets in the history of the sport.

On Saturday, the sequel upset came in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where first-year coach Eliah Drinkwitz delivered the first signature victory of his career with a 34-31 victory. Akeem Davis-Gaither blocked the 56-yard attempt as time expired, setting off a delirious celebration in the Appalachian State locker room.

On Saturday night, coach Eliah Drinkwitz stressed to Yahoo Sports that the Mountaineers weren’t surprised at the result. All week, Drinkwitz stressed a simple message to his team: “It’s not an upset if we believe we can win. So we weren’t hoping to win, we expected to win.”

Drinkwitz inherited a team with 17 returning starters that was ranked for a week last season. But for all Scott Satterfield’s success in Boone, he never defeated a Power Five team. Tailback Darrynton Evans rushed for three touchdowns, quarterback Zac Thomas threw for 224 yards and junior lineman Demetrius Taylor returned a fumble 20 yards for the score.

In our conversation on the bus ride back to Boone, Drinkwitz said most of the players were sleeping or monitoring Twitter for highlights. He did get one text that he appreciated: “You know it’s a big win when you get a text from Bill Belichick,” he said. What did it say? “Congrats on the big win.”

Much like the last upset, they’ll be talking about this one in Boone for a while.

Tulane’s turnaround

Late Thursday night, Tulane coach Willie Fritz called a staff meeting at Bruno’s, a tavern on the corner of Maple and Hillary near campus. He texted his coaches that both attendance and consumption of at least one celebratory beer was mandatory.

There’s plenty to toast at Tulane these days, especially in the wake of the Green Wave’s scintillating comeback victory over Houston at home on Thursday night. Tulane (3-1) won, 38-31, after back-to-back dynamic plays in the final seconds of regulation. It began with a fake-kneel play that led to an 18-yard run by Amare Jones, which set up a game winning 53-yard touchdown pass from Justin McMillan to Jalen McCleskey.

Tulane erased a 28-7 deficit, and Fritz was still beaming about it when he called after brunch on Saturday after dining with his wife and daughter at Another Broken Egg of Magazine Street. While on the phone, a few students ran up to him and screamed their congratulations. “That doesn’t happen very often,” he said with a laugh.

It’s fitting that McMillan to McCleskey was the winning connection for Tulane, as the Green Wave have emerged as contenders in the American Athletic Conference thanks to a recruiting strategy that’s included plucking select graduate transfers. That star duo are two of the four graduate transfers who start on offense, and there are seven overall on the Tulane roster. That includes two from Ivy League schools and reserve linebacker Malik Lawal, who is studying to be a doctor. “Our academics have really helped us,” Fritz said, “Kids wanting to pair an undergraduate degree with an MBA or graduate degree from Tulane.”

They’ve helped deliver Tulane a viral moment that’s arguably garnered the school more attention than it has received in at least decade. Maybe longer. (Tulane has the AAC’s top 2020 recruiting class, with 23 commitments.) Fritz said he can feel the momentum for the program building in New Orleans, and credited athletic director Troy Dannen for marketing that includes $5 tickets and $3 beers at Yulman Stadium.

“There’s a generation of fans we lost when they were playing in the Super Dome and weren’t winning,” he said. “It was tough. We’re getting the students involved. We’re not a big school, we’ve got to get New Orleans jumping.”

Friday night was a jumpstart on that.

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