Jeremy Pruitt doesn't want this week to be about him, but he does miss his guys. It's been 21 months since Tennessee's former coach was fired amid allegations he brought in recruits to Knoxville, Tennessee, during the COVID-19 recruiting dead period. Still, his presence -- in some way -- hovers over Saturday's showdown between the No. 6 Volunteers and No. 3 Alabama.
Only a handful of the Vols' players are ones that he did not bring into the program, Pruitt noted.
That's less of an issue than the Tennessee notice of allegations that dropped in July. In it, Pruitt is alleged to have overseen the program during a time when there were 18 Level I violations.
Most damning is the allegation that Pruitt and his wife "knowingly arranged" for impermissible recruiting visits and inducements. Pruitt denied those assertions to CBS Sports but didn't go into detail.
The investigation also creates a disjunction heading into the SEC on CBS game of the week. This magical season may have not been possible without Pruitt. In addition to bringing in players such as Heisman Trophy contending quarterback Hendon Hooker and leading wide receiver Jalin Hyatt, sources say Pruitt encouraged Tennessee players to stay at Rocky Top after his firing.
Reports state that 15 players transferred following Pruitt's departure and that Tennessee played last season with 69 scholarship players. The limit is 85. Josh Heupel was hired in time for the second recruiting period in February 2021. His 2022 class finished 17th nationally in the 247Sports Composite.
The investigation is not something that anyone at Tennessee wants to consider this week. Alabama and Tennessee head into the game both undefeated for the first time since 1989. Rocky Top may sell out of cigars.
It's unknown whether Tennessee would be penalized in time to impact this season, but the charges are so serious that a postseason ban has to be on the table. (However, lack of institutional control is not.) CBS Sports previously reported Tennessee could be a test case on how the NCAA views penalizing innocent athletes in these types of situations.
Pruitt will likely be torn on Saturday. He is an Alabama graduate who coached for the Crimson Tide, but his one and only head coaching job was with the Vols where he went 16-19 in three seasons.
He is out of the coaching profession. The notice includes a belief from the NCAA that the infractions committee could conclude Pruitt has violated the coach responsibility bylaw. That rule states a coach is responsible for oversight of his program. A show-cause order is possible for Pruitt. That is the scarlet letter from the NCAA that would render him unhireable for a period of years.
During the COVID-19 dead period that lasted from March 2020 to June 2021, parents and athletes were only allowed to make unofficial visits. During that time they weren't allowed to meet anyone from the athletic department. The notice of allegations says the Tennessee staff "knowingly planned and arranged the visits" of some recruits.
Hooker transferred from Virginia Tech in January 2021. Only 19 days later, Pruitt was fired. The two never met in person, Pruitt said. The recruitment was conducted over the phone and on zoom.
"When I got to Tennessee, I got back into the flow of things," Hooker told CBS Sports. "I was able to have full access to the film room. I was in the facility eight hours a day watching film. Even if no other player was in there, I was in there trying to figure out what was going on. Not only am I new, it's a new system. I want to show the coaches I'm fully invested."
Extensive credit should go to current coach Heupel, who is 12-6 with that roster. The Vols are 5-0 for the first time since 2016 and have quickly identified their own identity under Heupel's watch. Neyland Stadium will be packed for one of the biggest Tennessee games in years.
But somewhere back home in Alabama, Pruitt will watch with split allegiances but knowing one thing about Saturday.
"This is about these players," he said.
What's up with Bryce Young?
Let's be clear: Alabama probably can't win at Tennessee without star QB and reigning Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young. That was evident last week when backup Jalen Milroe turned it over three times -- in a home game -- keeping Texas A&M so close the contest went down to the final play. As of Wednesday, coach Nick Saban said his quarterback was on a "pitch count" and would progress in practice on Thursday. In essence, not much has changed since Young was injured Oct. 1 at Arkansas.
We tried to give a general timeline on shoulder sprain recovery last week, but that wasn't accounting for Saban's misdirection. Young was announced as the starter minutes before last week's Texas A&M game, only to see Milroe make his first career start. Expect similar approach this week. We won't know who is starting until Alabama's first offensive series.
College Football Playoff armageddon
Might as well put this out there now. If Tennessee beats Alabama, there is a scenario for three SEC teams in the College Football Playoff. Here's how it works: Alabama rights itself with the return of Young and wins out, including defeating No. 1 Georgia in the SEC Championship Game. Tennessee gets through its schedule with its only loss coming Nov. 5 at Georgia.
That most likely leaves two in the CFP with Alabama and Georgia both at 12-1. It would be hard to leave out the Vols at 11-1, finishing second in the SEC East, with a win over Bama. That's either the best thing ever (to some) or an indication (to others) the 12-team playoff can't get here fast enough.
Lincoln Riley can't know what he's getting into. He just can't. Utah's Rice-Eccles Stadium is one of the loudest venues in the country. The game kicking off in primetime will add to the "preparations" in the tailgates. That's a big reason No. 20 Utah has won its last 11 games at home and 22 of the last 23. Riley is the first USC coach to win his first six games at the school since 1951. Turnovers will likely rule the night. Between them, the two schools have 29 interceptions. No. 7 USC leads the country in turnover margin.
This is supposed to be USC's toughest game on its way to a possible playoff berth. Get past this one and an undefeated regular season looks doable. A Utah win suddenly gives the Utes the tiebreaker over the Trojans in the single-division Pac-12.
Battle for the Big Ten East
Sorry to cross streams here, but No. 10 Penn State needs Micah Parsons to beat No. 5 Michigan. Parsons is out of eligibility, obviously, but the Nittany Lions linebacker has taken his maniacal tackling skills to the Cowboys. Will Penn State bring that mentality to Michigan?
That's worth asking for a program that labels itself Linebacker U. Halfway through the season, Penn State does not have a defender in the top 50 in tackles in the Big Ten. The closest linebacker to that list is Abdul Carter (18 tackles, two for loss, two pass breakups and one forced fumble). He also wears No. 11, same as Parsons.
Michigan is the only team besides Alabama to rank in the top 10 in offense and defense. Penn State has caused 11 turnovers in the last three games. For the first time in 25 years, the teams will meet both ranked in the top 10. The winner has the honor of staying in the Big East race, with Ohio State still to go for both.
New Big 12 preview
If you're wondering about who might be the alpha dog in the reconfigured Big 12, take a look at Fort Worth, Texas, on Saturday. The game between No. 8 Oklahoma State and No. 13 TCU might be a preview of the Big 12's ruling class. It is, to this point, the league's game of the year. Mike Gundy is the best coach with the best program with the loss of Texas and Oklahoma. TCU is third nationally in scoring having trailed for all of 16 ½ minutes in the first five games. The Pokes are fourth in scoring having won each game by double figures (just like Ohio State!) Former defensive coordinator Jim Knowles left enough behind that the Cowboys lead the country in tackles for loss. There were 14 last week against Texas Tech.
Speaking of the Big 12, it's worth asking whether Oklahoma is the worst team in the league. The case can be made as Kansas heads to Norman, Oklahoma, After the shocking shutout at the hands of Texas -- the worst whitewash in program history -- the Sooners (3-3) are taking stock of the damage. The defense has turned out to be OU's worst in years. The Sooners are dead last in the league allowing 450 yards per game. That's 178 yards more than the 2009 unit that gave up 272 yards per game in a five-loss season. That also marks the last time the Sooners were 3-3. "We're not tackling very good right now, if anybody hasn't noticed," coach Brent Venables said this week.
But if you want to dig down on what happened this year, consider the transfer portal. Quarterback Caleb Williams got in it and went to USC. That changed everything. In down years, OU could at least outscore opponents. No more. The average of 30.8 points per game is the fewest since 2006. Add to that Venables being a first-year coach, there is still a lot to figure out. The sudden downturn hints at the forgettable John Blake era. The last coach before Bob Stoops, Blake posted the worst three-year record in OU history, 12-22.
Bryan Harsin's long farewell
Say what you will about the Auburn coach's situation, it's always troubling to see a good man going through this sort of ordeal. With five schools already in the market, it's logical to assume Auburn will jump onto the coaching carousel after a supposed loss at Ole Miss. This is your 2-minute warning. A firing two days from now would mark the fifth Sunday in the last six at least one Power Five coach has been let go.
The case for James Madison
If transfers can get waivers quicker than Tennessee's tempo, why does No. 25 James Madison (at Georgia Southern) have to wait two years to be postseason eligible? Who is it going to hurt? The two-year probationary period for FCS moving up to FBS is an antiquated rule. Allowing the Dukes to be bowl eligible isn't going to cause an FCS bum rush. Even if it does, who cares? The Power Five remain in a process of having a stranglehold over everything from recruiting to revenue to NCAA governance. The school said recently it will appeal to be bowl-eligible next season. Allowing the Dukes in early would be a great way to celebrate the game.