One year ago, Tennessee football was brimming with anticipation and newfound confidence. At long last, the Volunteers were prepared for a breakthrough season, a return to glory for a proud program that had spent at least a decade mired in mediocrity.
Now, Tennessee is left with a frustrating question: What happens after a team of destiny becomes another forgettable team of disappointment?
When the Vols took the field in their Orange & White spring scrimmage last April, they boasted a veteran roster of players that had gradually improved under coach Butch Jones, from 5-7 to 7-6 to 9-4. They would be voted No. 9 in the AP top 25, formerly a familiar position but in this case the team's first top-10 preseason ranking since 2005. The Vols hadn't finished a season in the top 10 since 2001, hadn't beaten Florida since 2004 and hadn't won the SEC East since 2007. Everything, however, seemed to be aligning perfectly for patience with Jones to pay off.
By 21st-century Tennessee standards, finishing 9-4 was successful. But by Tennessee standards throughout history, finishing 9-4, given the justifiable preseason expectations, was a failure. The Vols pounded Virginia Tech, finally beat Florida and escaped from Georgia with a Hail Mary, and yet they still collapsed to go 4-4 in conference play and end up in the Music City Bowl, a first half of close calls and miracle comebacks turning into another downfall that featured a double-OT loss to Texas A&M, another blowout loss to Alabama and inexcusable defeats at the hands of South Carolina and Vanderbilt.
With the 2017 Orange & White game on tap for Saturday, most college football analysts have presumably moved on, burned by the Vols one too many times. While the SEC East has repeatedly shown that it's unpredictable in this age of mediocrity in the division, it's likely that Georgia will enter the 2017 season as the favorite, with Florida still in the mix after backing into back-to-back titles with no offense. Tennessee, meanwhile, is assumed to be rebuilding, replacing much of the core that built up those expectations last year, only for the team to fall short.
Quarterback Josh Dobbs is gone after he showed flashes of brilliances but struggled to put together consistently dominant performances. Running backs Alvin Kamara and Jalen Hurd are gone, the latter leaving the team in the middle of last season. Leading receiver Josh Malone is gone. And so are defensive stalwarts Derek Barnett, Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Cameron Sutton and Corey Vereen.
It leads to a changing of the guard of sorts for a bunch of new faces who have the difficult job of trying to stabilize a program mired in uncertainty. Jones, entering his fifth season, inherited a mess from Derek Dooley, but he's gone through an entire cycle of recruiting classes now with a 30-21 record and doesn't exactly have the confidence of a fan base that's tired of being patient. Jones, in fact, may never live down last November's "championship of life" comment when referring to his senior class after a disappointing season. (Before the Vols even lost to Vandy.)
What's made Tennessee's results so difficult to accept is how wide-open the SEC East has been since Urban Meyer left Florida. It wouldn't be easy to stomach losing the SEC West to Alabama every year either -- as LSU can attest -- but at least there's a semblance of understanding there. In the East, Florida has won two titles in a row despite barely even being able to muster a first down by the end of each season. The door has been wide-open, and Tennessee has been unable to find it, even after finally beating the Gators head-to-head.
Entering the 2017 season, the focus is on what Jones needs to do to solidify his standing and build any sort of confidence for the future now that a new athletic director, Kansas State's John Currie, has taken over, with the responsibility for deciding what's best for leadership of the football program going forward. An increasingly frustrated fan base -- see Indiana basketball -- combined with a new athletic director is a recipe for trouble.
"The expectations are defined by the history," Currie told The Commercial Appeal in March. "Tennessee is a championship-level program and that's where you want to get to. But one of the things I've learned from Coach Snyder at K-State is what you have to focus on, and that is, are we getting better today than we were yesterday? If you get away from that principal and think about where you want to get to eventually, you're doing it wrong. We've got to focus on where we are today, and will we be better tomorrow, and continue to build through that process."
To this point, Jones' Vols have yet to get worse. He inherited a 5-7 team and went 5-7 again, and then he increased the Vols' win total by two twice in a row before leveling off. It may not have been at the rate that some wanted, but for three years, Jones did consistently get better.
The growth game to an abrupt halt, though, as the various escape acts last year proved to be unsustainable and the Vols hit a wall to go 9-4 again. Avoiding any sort of backslide might be difficult.
Due in part to injuries, the defense fell off in SEC play last season, but it's reasonable to believe the unit will stabilize under coordinator Bob Shoop, even without an All-American pass rusher in Barnett. It needs to stabilize and get better in a hurry, because the offense is a mystery, with junior Quinten Dormady and redshirt freshman Jarrett Guarantano battling to replace Dobbs, while new offensive coordinator Larry Scott -- promoted from tight ends coach -- also tries to fill out the supporting cast. John Kelly is a potential breakout candidate at running back after actually rushing for more yards than Kamara, while the receiving corps will try to find new weapons to pair with Jauan Jennings.
Jones is a strong recruiter who has signed four top-20 classes in a row, but recruiting momentum has already dwindled a bit and will fall off even more if there are no further signs of growth. While the opener against Georgia Tech is winnable, two of the Vols' first five games are against Florida and Georgia, and then they have to play both Alabama and LSU from the SEC West. It's not an easy road, with plenty of growing up to do in a hurry for what will be a new-look team.
None of which is to say that excuses will be accepted. Jones' two best recruiting classes were signed in 2014 and '15, classes that are supposed to form the bulk of the core of the 2017 team. The coaching staff has gone through overhauls, and now the pressure is squarely on Jones himself, with player development, featuring only his recruits, in the spotlight this season.
A program like Tennessee runs the risk of falling into too many new coaching cycles as it desperately and impatiently tries to recapture former glory. The Vols know this all too well, putting the 2017 team in an awkward position. Consensus is unlikely to think too highly of Tennessee's chances in the SEC East this season, but the Vols can't afford a backslide.
It's been ages since a Tennessee team significantly exceeded preseason expectations, and at this point, finally doing so is the only way to restore confidence in the future.