ATLANTA — No matter what Jeremy Pruitt has been doing for the past month, he has felt a little guilty.
Maybe he was studying College Football Playoff film as Alabama’s defensive coordinator. Then he wasn’t focused on his other job — rebuilding and repairing Tennessee as the Volunteers’ new coach.
Or maybe he was talking to candidates for his staff in Knoxville. Then he wasn’t helping ’Bama and Nick Saban, the man who brought him into the college football coaching world a decade ago.
"It’s not an easy deal," Pruitt said.
Whether it was a successful one depends on what happens against Georgia in tonight’s national championship at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
If his Crimson Tide defense can slow down the Bulldogs’ top-20 scoring offense and star running backs Sony Michel and Nick Chubb, the 43-year-old will have another championship ring to show off in Knoxville. If it can’t, the title will go to Kirby Smart, the coach who let him go two years ago at Georgia.
So it goes in an all-SEC matchup loaded with weird coaching cross-pollination.
Alabama has been through similar situations. Lane Kiffin tried to juggle running the Tide’s offense while taking over Florida Atlantic last season. He didn’t make it; Saban replaced him a week before the title game at Raymond James Stadium.
But Smart balanced his two jobs well two years ago. He helped build the foundation that has Georgia on the cusp of its first national title in 37 years while coordinating the Tide’s defense through its 2015 championship run.
"It was probably the hardest month of my life," Smart said.
But it has been harder, and weirder, for Pruitt.
Unlike Smart, Pruitt had to navigate the inaugural early signing period. His Vols signed 14 recruits, and their class sits 16th nationally, just ahead of the rival Gators.
Pruitt has also tried to figure out how the Vols can heal from two high-profile debacles: The disastrous attempt to hire former Bucs coach Greg Schiano and the coup that led to former Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer taking over as athletic director and, eventually, hiring Pruitt.
Because Pruitt has only spent a few days on campus and addressed the team once, he doesn’t know yet what fixes need to be implemented. Those are problems for next week — after he gets through one of the biggest games of his career.
The good news for Alabama is that Pruitt seems equipped to handle the situation. He coordinated the dominant defense that helped Florida State win the 2013 national title. He saw Smart juggle both roles at Georgia two years ago, and Tide defensive backs coach Derrick Ansley said Pruitt has handled the situation "like a pro."
"I don’t think he’s tired at all," linebacker Rashaan Evans said. "I think the dude is a robot, man."
A robot who knows his opponent almost uncomfortably well. Pruitt led the Bulldogs defense from 2014-15, so he recruited many of their top players and either coached them or tried to stop them in practice.
"Trust me, there were some long days trying to tackle Nick and Sony back then," Pruitt said.
While the game’s outcome likely depends on whether Pruitt’s new defenders can tackle the Georgia duo tonight, the coaching ties might be as interesting as the impending slugfest.
Pruitt took Smart’s old job at Alabama because Smart chose not to retain him at Georgia. At least three Bulldogs assistants previously worked for Saban, including outside linebackers coach Kevin Sherrer. Sherrer is straddling two jobs, too; Pruitt has hired him to be his defensive coordinator at Tennessee, so the two co-workers are also combatants in the biggest game of the year.
That unusual relationship led to some weird evening phone calls after practice. They’d crack a few lines about whether Georgia can hang with ’Bama before getting down to business about filling out a staff at mutual rival Tennessee.
"We’re so strapped for time," Sherrer said. "When we get on the phone most of the time, it is business."
Tonight, it will be all business for Pruitt. There will be no talk of the Vols, or friendships, or the last crazy month.
Only four quarters of work, with a national championship at stake.
Contact Matt Baker at [email protected] Follow @MBakerTBTimes.