I do not think that Tennessee Volunteers football is doomed, nor do I believe that the future is particularly bleak. But rewatch last year's game against Alabama (… or Oregon … or Missouri … or Auburn … or Florida … or Vanderbilt … or ...) and it's only natural for conclusions to that effect to be drawn. Not only has Tennessee been down, but this has not been a Nebraska-like perpetual four-loss purgatory. It's been full-on, bottom-tier-of-the-SEC hell, where about the only thing that can be said is, "Hey, we're still not Kentucky."
It cannot be an easy time to be a fan.
To establish exactly what Butch Jones faces as he enters his second season as head coach, let's first state a few facts -- and please bear with me, Vols fans, I'm sorry:
- Tennessee has not scored more than 17 points against Alabama since 2003. In that time, the Crimson Tide have won the SEC's most famous cross-division rivalry eight out of 10 times.
- Tennessee has not defeated Florida since 2004, losing the last seven by double digits.
- Tennessee has lost its last two games to Vanderbilt.
These three opponents are essentially the signposts of a typical Tennessee season. For much of college football history, Alabama has served as a national measuring stick for Tennessee. For the last two decades, Florida has served as an SEC East measuring stick. And beating Vanderbilt has always been a foregone conclusion that emphasizes in-state superiority. The Vols have failed against all three lately, encapsulating the worst era in program history.
The paradigm has shifted, and a program that is in the top 10 in all-time wins next to Oklahoma, Alabama and USC instead ranks among the likes of Syracuse, Minnesota, California and Maryland over the last six years. Among those top-10 winningest programs, this is already the worst stretch any has had in the last 50 years, with four consecutive losing seasons (counting a 6-7 2010 season that ended with a bowl loss). The only one of those teams to hit three consecutive losing seasons is Oklahoma, which sputtered in John Blake's three seasons from 1996-98 before Bob Stoops took over, went 7-5, then won the national championship in 2000.
So, yeah, with no more than seven wins in a season since 2007, more than any other traditional power in recent history Tennessee has lost the plot, rendering a quick fix impossible. This is what Jones inherited, not one of the historically dominant programs of the SEC. Expectations need to be managed accordingly.
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That won't stop Jones from trying to speed up the process, of course. Over the winter, Tennessee was so in need of an injection of young talent that 14 of its class of 2014 recruits enrolled early. It's an enormous number, and Jones was surely happy to get as many members of his fifth-ranked (according to Rivals) first full recruiting class on campus as soon as possible, because the program was so devoid of developed, experienced talent leftover from the Derek Dooley era that the current team can't help but skew young out of necessity. If nothing else, it's a good selling point when recruiting.
It's not that Dooley didn't recruit well; Rivals ranked his three classes ninth, 13th and 17th nationally, all of which are good hauls for a program that, like Oklahoma, has had decades of success despite needing to rely heavily on raiding enemy territory for talent (only two of January's 14 early enrollees were in-state prospects). But that modest success didn't translate into tangible results, as Dooley's only bowl appearance ended in disaster, and his three teams finished 57th, 51st and 57th in Football Outsiders' F/+ rankings. In other words, the Dooley era achieved thorough mediocrity with no improvement. Or, for an illustrative longer view, Brian Fremeau's 25-year program profile shows the steady downward trend in Knoxville ever since the Tee Martin-led 1998 national championship.
As with Nebraska, the longer the slide continues, the more that history ceases to matter. This year's recruiting cycle includes prospects who were only a year or two old when the Vols won that national title, which is also the last time they won an SEC championship. Obviously, it helps to have a 100,000-seat stadium, passionate fans and plenty of resources. But recruiting, at this point, also requires a history lesson, because that 2008 Outback Bowl trophy isn't going to cut it when compared to what other SEC frontrunners have to showcase. So while former powerhouses typically expect quick turnarounds based on the cachet of their programs and the top coaches and talent they can attract, this isn't the typical rebuilding job in Knoxville.
It's a new situation for Tennessee, just as it's a new situation for Jones, who didn't make his name as a program builder. He inherited and maintained two already successful programs from Brian Kelly, first at Central Michigan, then at Cincinnati -- schools that he did, however, help mold into pesky upstarts and tough outs for more established programs.
If that's what Tennessee has to be right now, so be it, no matter what Tennessee used to be.
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In 2014, after a 5-7 season, Tennessee must replace the entirety of both of its lines, including star left tackle Antonio Richardson on offense and 351-pound tackle Daniel McCullers on defense. It must find a viable option at quarterback behind a rebuilt O-line, whether it's senior Justin Worley or sophomore Josh Dobbs in a narrowed race for the starting job after Riley Ferguson transferred. Essentially, the foundations of the team are totally up in the air, and the Vols have to rely on one obvious star in linebacker A.J. Johnson, and the high ceilings of a whole bunch of promising players, both young and old, like linebacker Curt Maggitt (who returns from a torn ACL); running backs Marlin Lane and Jalen Hurd; and receivers Marquez North, Von Pearson and Josh Malone -- a group that could make Tennessee a weekly boom-or-bust type team.
College football is an unpredictable sport, never say never, etc., but a total Year Two turnaround probably isn't possible in Knoxville. Give Tennessee the schedule of Iowa, and it's a different story. But after facing a brutal schedule ranked 10th by Jeff Sagarin last year, Tennessee must nearly duplicate the process and play the following, with a very inexperienced lineup: at Oklahoma, at Georgia, Florida, at Ole Miss, Alabama, at South Carolina ... and also Missouri, and the trip to Vanderbilt, and even the far-from-a-gimme Sunday opener against Utah State, which boasts one of the nation's best playmakers at quarterback in Chuckie Keeton and a stingy defense. Merely getting to six wins for a bid to, say, the Birmingham Bowl is a steep challenge. Record-wise, it's probable that Tennessee will tread water again, with 5-7 in play for the fourth straight season and 6-6 the most likely scenario. If that happens, though, it's not the end of the world.
At the moment, Tennessee is a recruiting powerhouse, as often happens when a new regime comes in and speaks of "changing the culture" and finding the players to "restore the glory" when selling the team to recruits. Eventually, the new car smell wears off, and on-field success will increasingly dictate what happens on Signing Day. But even if Tennessee can't contend for a division title yet, it can at least surprise a team or too -- like it did vs. South Carolina last year -- and prove that it is finally trending upward again.
As this era drags on and on, getting longer and longer, it's only natural for patience to wear thin. College football is cyclical, sure, and all top programs go through down times, but Tennessee's slump is reaching unprecedented proportions for one of the sport's historic powers. Jones walked into an almost desperate situation, as the man who must save a national power from the chaotic departure of Kiffin and the aimless leadership of Dooley, at a place where a segment of Tennessee fans surely still insists that Jon Gruden's yacht was spotted on the Tennessee River before the spring game.
In this case, a "wait 'til next year" attitude isn't something to shrug off as a joke, even at a prestigious program like Tennessee. For Tennessee, getting through 2014 may turn out to be mostly preparation for 2015, a time when Jones' work can realistically be expected to start paying off, when Tennessee can realistically start trying to look like the old Tennessee again, when Tennessee-Florida in September matters and the Third Saturday in October vs. Alabama is dramatic.
For now, playing the role of spoiler as a tough out for SEC contenders is a good enough step in the right direction, even if spoiler is not the role Tennessee ever thought it would be playing. It may not be pretty, but it may also be the most entertaining Tennessee football we've seen in a while, and that's a good start before expectations can start to creep higher.