The temptation here is to throw a couple of buckets of cold water on the great expectations for the Tennessee Vols this season.
But you know what? Enjoy the hype, UT fans. Any fan base that was subjected to three years of Derek Dooley deserves this moment.
Are expectations too high? Probably. While you can make a very solid case that the Vols are the best team in the SEC East and should represent the division in Atlanta on Dec. 3, this talk about contending for a national championship is a bit of a stretch.
Get back to me after you get through that four-week gauntlet of Florida, Georgia, Texas A&M and Alabama. If you’re 6-1 – or, heavens to Neyland, 7-0 – exiting the Alabama game, you’re definitely in the hunt for one of four spots in the College Football playoff.
For now, though, it’s encouraging to have Tennessee in the conversation as a potential playoff team.
It’s been awhile.
“People realize Tennessee is a true contender,” says Josh Dobbs, senior quarterback. “Obviously, we have our own expectations. … We hold ourselves to high standards.”
There hasn’t been this much preseason hype surrounding the UT program since 2005. The ’05 Vols had a consensus No. 3 national ranking entering the season, listed behind only Southern Cal and Texas.
But things didn’t work out so well that year. While Southern Cal and Texas played up to expectations and wound up in the BCS National Championship Game, with the Longhorns and Vince Young winning 41-38, the Vols cratered. They were home for the holidays with a 5-6 record, the first losing season for the program in 17 years.
That collapse, which included four straight losses in a killer stretch of games to Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina and Notre Dame, was the first real sign of trouble for Phillip Fulmer. Although his next two teams won a combined 19 games and the 2007 Vols played in the SEC Championship Game, Fulmer was taking on water.
When the 2008 team opened the season 3-6, Fulmer was done. He was fired after an ugly 27-6 loss at South Carolina but was allowed to coach out the rest of the season.
That set in motion a coaching carousel that saw four different head coaches in a six-year period – Fulmer in 2008, Lane Kiffin in ’09, Dooley in 2010-2012 and Butch Jones in 2013.
History tells us that kind of coaching upheaval leaves a mark. The lack of continuity affects recruiting, player development, everything.
That’s why it’s important to remember the Tennessee program is only three years removed from a run of four straight losing seasons. For all the repair work Jones has done on the roster via remarkable recruiting, this still is not a finished product.
That being said, Jones privately targeted 2016 as the year UT could be a true contender for the SEC championship. Given that state of the program he took over, he knew it was a four-year rebuild – at least.
And to hear senior linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin tell it, the program has been rebuilt to succeed over the long haul.
“We’re not even at the top yet,” Reeves-Maybin says. “We’re still climbing. In the years to come, it’s only going to get better.”
In his previous three seasons as Vols coach, Jones has spoken often about having a young, inexperienced team. And it was true, for the most part. The roster he inherited from Dooley in 2013 was lacking across the board.
But youth is no longer an excuse. Granted, UT currently has only 11 seniors but there are 27 juniors, including 10 fourth-year juniors.
“It’s different because since I’ve been here, we’ve always been a young team,” adds Derek Barnett, junior defensive end. “It’s the first year since I’ve been here we’ve been a veteran team.”
On top of that, it’s an even-number year. That means the Florida and Alabama games are at Neyland Stadium. Never overlook home-field advantage.
And the Vols need all the advantages they can get against those nemesis programs. For those keeping score, the Gators own 11 straight victories over UT and the Vols haven’t beaten Alabama since 2006.
Yes, the timing is right. The Vols are catching the rest of the Eastern Division in a state of flux. Georgia made a coaching change and could be starting a freshman quarterback by the time the UT game rolls around. Florida has its own quarterback issues and its overall talent on the offensive side of the ball is not up to the customary level.
Missouri, a surprise winner of the SEC East in 2013 and ’14, has slipped badly and has a rookie head coach. South Carolina has slipped even further, with Will Muschamp trying to prove he is head coaching material after a failed tenure at Florida. Kentucky and Vanderbilt, while potentially better than last season, are far, far from being division contenders.
And then you have Tennessee. After three years of reminding us – correctly – of the shortcomings on his roster, Jones now is embracing the great expectations. His motto for these Vols: “Own It.” The slogan is plastered on T-shirts, wrist bands and is posted on the entrance to the practice field.
“Every year, we try to have something a little different,” Jones says. “Last year, it was ‘My All.’ It’s something that really, really is about this football team, this current team. No two teams are ever the same. …
“There’s so much that goes into it. When you look at it, when you own something, you’re going to take greater care of it than if you rent it or borrow it. We talk about it all the time. Just own it.”
And that includes Jones. As great a recruiter and marketer as he is, Jones still has some work to do when it comes to on-field decisions against top-tier competition. For the most part, he has won the games he was supposed to win, but the big one usually has gotten away.
At UT, Jones is 3-13 against Top 25 teams and 0-9 against teams ranked in the Top 10. Admittedly, he was dealing with an inferior roster in many of those games. But there have been some noteworthy late-game collapses, especially last season.
In the second game of 2015, the Vols were in position for a statement-making victory over Oklahoma but wound up blowing a 17-3 halftime lead, eventually losing in double-overtime.
At Florida, the Vols led 27-14 with 10:19 remaining, yet managed to lose. That collapse included a curious decision by Jones, who chose to kick the extra point to go up by 13 when most coaches carry a chart that indicates you should go for two in an attempt to stretch the lead to 14 points – two touchdowns and two extra points.
Jones initially defended his decision but later acknowledged he might have made a mistake. That gaffe calls into question his management of late-game situations. Too often, the Vols have failed to close the deal and some of that blame falls on Jones.
To his credit, though, Jones chose not to stand pat after a 9-4 season in 2015. He jettisoned long-time coaching protégé John Jancek and hired Bob Shoop away from Penn State as UT’s defensive coordinator. Shoop is considered one of the top defensive minds in the college game and his philosophy of bringing pressure meshes nicely with Tennessee’s defensive talent and speed.
Shoop’s arrival is one of many reasons the bar is being set so high for the Vols.
“We always have high expectations,” Jones says. “We want to compete for championships. That’s why you compete. But you have to follow the process, and it’s a journey.
“The more time you spend talking about winning championships and expectations, you’re wasting time. That’s taking away from the task at hand – and that’s being a better football player and a better football team.”
Finally, Tennessee is back in the business of contending for SEC championships.
It’s been awhile.
David Climer is a veteran sports writer, living in Nashville, who covers a variety of college and professional sports in Tennessee and the Southeast. He is retired from The Tennessean.