Butch Jones is on the verge of one of his greatest victories.
On Wednesday, National Signing Day, Tennessee will make official one of the best recruiting classes in the country. Much of the information is already official, in fact: For the second year in a row, the Volunteers sped up the recruiting process with a ton of early enrollees, as 10 freshmen -- eight of them rated as four-star recruits -- graduated high school already and will participate in spring practice, giving them a head start on possibly contributing during the 2015 season. At least another 18 are expected to sign with Tennessee on Wednesday. It's currently one of the biggest classes in the country, and according to 247Sports' composite rankings, it is the fourth-best class too. Paired with last year's seventh-ranked class, Tennessee has delivered a much needed influx of highly regarded talent to try to pull itself out of over a decade of mediocrity. After two years of transition, 2015 feels like it will be the first real test of where the Jones era is going.
Before we go anointing Tennessee as the next big thing in college football, though, please take a moment to consider the tangible results achieved by the Volunteers on the field. For a team to arrive as a conference contender, it must do something beyond beating Iowa, Kentucky, Vanderbilt and the 2014 version of South Carolina. Its biggest victories must start coming in the fall rather than the first Wednesday in February. The last thing anyone should do is overemphasize the TaxSlayer Bowl.
It is a commonly talked about problem now, the infamous bowl bump, something especially illustrated by West Virginia in 2012, following its Orange Bowl blowout of Clemson, and Oklahoma last season, following its Sugar Bowl upset of Alabama. Recency bias maintains a stranglehold on college football analysis, and because all bowl games are built into something much bigger than the exhibitions that they are, the results are trumped up too. When it's the holiday season, you spend a week at an unfamiliar destination and you play an uncommon opponent for a trophy, it's always going to be treated differently. When it's combined with an impressive November finish, the result only gets further magnified.
Our last image of the 2014 season for Tennessee was its beatdown of Iowa, a 45-28 thumping in Jacksonville on Jan. 2 that was worse than the final score indicated. The Vols jumped out to a 42-7 lead, controlling the line of scrimmage as well as they had all season, despite the presence of stars like Brandon Scherff and Carl Davis along the Hawkeyes' lines. Sophomore quarterback Joshua Dobbs capped off a breakout in the second half of the season with a solid effort as both a passer and a runner, and freshman tailback Jalen Hurd looked every bit like the five-star prospect he was advertised to be when he signed with the Vols last winter. With power, speed and tempo driven by young talent, Tennessee's performance against Iowa was everything that the Butch Jones era promised to be, finally shining a light at the of the tunnel of all these years of misery. For once, justified optimism has returned to Knoxville, for a program that has not won the SEC since 1998 and has not won more than seven games in a season since 2007.
Tennessee won four of its final five games, including blowouts of Kentucky and Iowa and a comeback against South Carolina in which Dobbs took hold of the starting quarterback job for good. It's been bad enough that Tennessee has been one of the youngest teams in college football, one that lost all nine starters on its lines entering 2014; it was made worse by undependable quarterback play. Dobbs played before he was ready as a freshman in '13, and he didn't get a shot until Oct. 25 against Alabama in '14. He responded by completing 63.3 percent of his passes for 1,206 yards with nine touchdowns and six interceptions, while rushing 104 times for 469 yards and eight touchdowns in only six games. Dobbs' passing still needs refining, but he brought a new dimension to the Vols offense, which has been so handcuffed by limited quarterback play. He's capable of improvising, he can push the tempo and he could help negate the team's offensive line issues through his running ability.
Dobbs will enter spring football as the clear favorite for the starting job, something Tennessee hasn't really had since Jones arrived. And he'll be surrounded by familiar faces: four starting offensive linemen return, as do Tennessee's leading rusher and top 10 leading receivers, as do seven of the top 10 tacklers. Cornerback Cam Sutton and defensive end Derek Barnett have already become stars, and players like Hurd, receiver Marquez North and linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin have flashed that potential too. According to Phil Steele, Tennessee's 18 returning starters rank sixth among all FBS teams, after ranking 110th in that category a year ago with just 10, include the aforementioned depleted lines.
Last offseason, patience was the best practice for all involved with Tennessee football. The quarterback situation remained unsettled, and the situation in the trenches appeared dire. Against a brutal schedule (at Oklahoma, at Georgia, Florida, at Ole Miss, Alabama, at South Carolina, Missouri), the best hope was to get back to a bowl game for the first time since 2010, and that's exactly what happened. Nobody at Tennessee, a program with a proud history of success, wants to take baby steps back toward competing for championships, but after so many aimless years of mediocrity, patience was the only practical way to deal with a situation that did not have an immediate fix.
And that's still true one year later. It continues to be a slow process, one in which patience is justifiably turning into higher expectations -- just not a championship quite yet. Tennessee will not win the SEC next season, and odds are against it winning the SEC East, with Georgia standing as a clear favorite at this early point in the offseason and defending two-time champion Missouri not to be overlooked again either. The Vols are still searching for a new offensive coordinator after Mike Bajakian left for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and the new coordinator will still be charged with developing Dobbs, who gave plenty of reason for hope late in the season but is still an unproven project who needs to be tested on a weekly basis in the SEC, not just against a bad South Carolina defense, plus Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Iowa. Those games still don't paint a full picture.
There is no doubt that Tennessee has made appreciable strides under Jones, inching closer to relevance in both the SEC. The job, however, is still far from complete. Beating Iowa in a blowout has to turn into beating Oklahoma at home in Week 2 in September, in an early big game between teams that appear to be heading in opposite directions. It also has to turn into beating Florida on the road two weeks later, for the first time since 2004. Those are the next steps. That schedule will also include Arkansas, Georgia and South Carolina at home, and Alabama and Missouri on the road, meaning '15 again features plenty of land mines for a team that, despite so many returning starters, will still be somewhat young.
Wednesday, however, will be a celebration, and it will continue the trend of optimism that reaches back to early November. Winning something like the TaxSlayer Bowl and recruiting well used to be seen as givens for a program like Tennessee, but based on what it's been through, they are steps to be appreciated. It's OK to raise expectations. Just don't expect any giant leaps. One step at at time.