KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Georgia coach Kirby Smart sees the identity that Jeremy Pruitt is trying to build at Tennessee as these two former Alabama defensive coordinators prepare to face off.
Pruitt and Smart worked together on Alabama's staff from 2007-12. Pruitt was Georgia's defensive coordinator in the two seasons before Smart took over the program , then replaced Smart as Alabama's defensive coordinator. Pruitt was still Alabama's defensive coordinator last year when the Crimson Tide edged Smart's Georgia team in the College Football Playoff championship game.
Those common bonds might create some intrigue into what otherwise shapes up as a mismatch.
Tennessee (2-2, 0-1 SEC) heads into No. 2 Georgia (4-0, 2-0) on Saturday as a 31 ½-point underdog, but Smart believes the Volunteers are making strides in Pruitt's debut season.
"I see the physicality they're trying to run the ball with and (trying to) stop the run," Smart said. "There's no question they're creating an identity, and you can tell the way they're committed to the run, and each game they've gone up with the number of runs they've had. I think that's an important part of football. You've got to be able to do that."
Pruitt still has a long way to go.
Tennessee has lost by 26 points in each of its two matchups with Power Five teams — a 40-14 setback against West Virginia and a 47-21 defeat to Florida . Those scores show the enormity of the task facing Pruitt as he tries to transform Tennessee into a championship contender once again.
"What I want everybody in our program to do is to be at our best all the time," Pruitt said. "If we are at our best all the time, then the rest of it will take care of itself. That is what we are working to do every single day. I know where we want to go, and I know where our players want to go, but you do not get what you want. You get what you earn."
Smart's success at Georgia could have played a part in Tennessee hiring Pruitt. Smart showed that a former Alabama defensive coordinator without previous head coaching experience could quickly build a winner in the SEC. Smart is 25-7 in three seasons at Georgia, including a 17-2 mark since 2017.
It didn't hurt Pruitt that he and Smart have similar backgrounds.
Smart was Alabama's defensive coordinator from 2008-15, and the Crimson Tide won four national titles during that stretch. Pruitt has been a defensive coordinator for two national championship teams (Florida State in 2013 and Alabama in 2017) and was on Alabama's staff when the Crimson Tide won titles in 2009, 2011 and 2012.
Pruitt was Alabama's director of player development from 2007-09 and defensive backs coach from 2010-12 when Smart was on the Crimson Tide's staff.
"When he was the defensive coordinator, one of the things I did was I assisted him," Pruitt said. "I wasn't on the field yet (as director of player development), so we spent a lot of hours together."
Pruitt inherited a much tougher situation at Tennessee than Smart encountered at Georgia.
Smart took over a Georgia team that had won at least 10 games in four of the five seasons before his arrival, including a 10-3 mark in 2015 that led to the exit of Mark Richt . Tennessee was 4-8 and went winless in SEC competition last season
Some of Georgia's players have seen enough of Pruitt — he was Georgia's defensive coordinator from 2014-15 — to believe he can turn Tennessee into a contender.
"He's a good, phenomenal coach, and I'm sure what he's doing is going to have Tennessee on the right page," Georgia center Lamont Gaillard said.
How long that will take remains uncertain.
Tennessee hasn't reached the SEC championship game since 2007. The Vols' chances of ending that drought under Pruitt depend on whether he can eventually get Tennessee competing on equal footing with Smart's Georgia program.
"There's probably no secret to why they're having success," Pruitt said. "They're committed to what they're trying to get done. They've done a really good job. Kirby's got a vision and they've worked hard to get there."
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AP sports writer Charles Odum in Athens, Georgia, contributed to this report.