Picture your life ten years ago. You probably remember seeing George W. Bush begin his second term as President of the United States, and you probably remember seeing the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina on the city of New Orleans. You can likely recall seeing Michael Jackson and Lance Armstrong dominating the national headlines. But while you were discovering predictive text on your Motorola flip phone and sorting through your “Top Friends” on MySpace, do you happen to remember which SEC football team was expected to contend for a national title when the magazines came out in June and July? That team was the Tennessee Volunteers, ranked as high as No. 2 in the country in the preseason.
Indeed, 2005 was supposed to be the year for the Big Orange. Tennessee returned a plethora of talent from a 10-win team in 2004 that finished the season with a 38-7 Cotton Bowl victory over Texas A&M. Yet, after struggling past UAB in the season opener and fending off LSU in Baton Rouge, the highlight of the season, the Vols began their decline — a decline that has rarely subsided in 10 years. In 2005, the Vols lost to South Carolina for the first time ever in Knoxville. Vanderbilt beat UT that year for the first time since 1982, a game that also happened to take place in Neyland Stadium. Tennessee finished the year with a 5-6 record.
Then-head coach Phillip Fulmer’s glory days in Knoxville had come to an end. Despite reeling off 19 wins over the next two years and winning the SEC East in 2007, the magic just wasn’t there anymore. Tennessee had lost its luster and alumni had voiced their worries about Fulmer’s complacency in recruiting. Thus, after a rough start to the 2008 season, UT and Fulmer parted ways. The Vols lost 13-7 to Wyoming on Homecoming the following week. When Vol fans thought it couldn’t get any worse in 2008, how little they knew what was to come.
Lane Kiffin, a name now synonymous with ‘Spurrier’ in East Tennessee, was hired for the 2009 season. He was actually hired for longer than that, but the 2009 season alone was just enough time for Kiffin to lead the Vols to seven wins, then desert the program in the middle of the night, taking recruits with him. The roster he left behind was filled with transfers and arrests to the point that Tennessee lost nearly two full recruiting classes. Afterward, many of the same people who wanted Fulmer gone had come to realize he wasn’t so bad, even though the winning seasons were fading. It couldn’t get any worse for Tennessee, right?
Enter Derek Dooley. The son of legendary Georgia coach Vince Dooley, Derek became known for three things at Tennessee: wearing orange pants, coaching games from a stool, and losing. Dooley’s three years at Tennessee are widely recognized as the absolute lowest point in program history. There was the 2010 game against LSU, which Tennessee actually won in Baton Rouge, at least for a few moments before the officials realized the Vols had 13 players on the field on the final play. The Tigers got one play to punch in a touchdown and did so successfully for the victory.
In the Music City Bowl against North Carolina later that season, Dooley’s lone bowl appearance, there was a similar situation in which Tennessee thought it won the game and then actually didn’t. In 2011, Kentucky fans stormed the field after the Wildcats beat the Vols with a wide receiver playing quarterback. However, that wasn’t even the low point of Dooley’s tenure. In 2012, Tennessee lost 41-18 to Vanderbilt in Nashville. That would be Dooley’s final game as head coach of the Vols. He left Knoxville with a 15-21 record and never beat a ranked team. Tennessee fans don’t need to be reminded of these times. After three consecutive seven-loss seasons, the Vols were looking for a savior.
Welcome to the revival of Tennessee football. When Butch Jones flew into Knoxville from Cincinnati in December 2012, no one envied the job that lied ahead of him in rebuilding a once-proud football power. Sure, Tennessee had facilities and a rich tradition, but that was about it at the time. Relationships had been damaged, the roster had been depleted, there was a losing mentality amidst the program, academics suffered, and fans had stopped coming to games.
But since taking over, Jones has had a vision of rebuilding Tennessee brick-by-brick. He has spent the last three years tirelessly recruiting. Under Jones, the Vols have landed back-to-back top-10 recruiting classes. Facilities have been upgraded. Former players have come back to UT to get involved. The team’s overall GPA and APR score has improved. Jones has been endorsed by Peyton Manning, Jon Gruden and Mike Tomlin, among countless others. Tennessee beat a ranked team in 2013 and showed marked improvement last season, winning four of its last five games and scoring its first bowl win since ‘07.
It is no surprise that Tennessee is expected to take another leap in 2015. Not only do the Vols face a manageable schedule this season, but they also return an SEC-leading 18 starters from last year’s squad. Tennessee brings back a talented secondary on defense led by preseason All-SEC cornerback Cam Sutton. They also return two of the conference’s most prolific pass rushers, Derek Barnett and Curt Maggitt. On offense, the Vols will field a deep group of receivers led by Marquez North and Pig Howard, most of an offensive line that improved as the 2014 season progressed, and Jalen Hurd, who is unquestionably one of the SEC’s most talented running backs. Most importantly, for the first time since the days of Tee Martin in the late ‘90s, Tennessee will field an established mobile quarterback.
Joshua Dobbs is one of the smartest players in college football. An aerospace engineering major, Dobbs took over midseason in 2014 after Justin Worley suffered a shoulder injury. Dobbs threw for 1,206 yards and nine touchdowns. He also rushed for 469 yards and eight scores. Many fans point to Dobbs’ arrival as the key to Tennessee’s late-season success. His elusiveness and ability to dodge pass rushers helped remedy some of the glaring problems on the offensive line. As a result, Tennessee’s offense became more of a dual threat on the ground and in the air, while teams had to respect Dobbs’ ability to escape the pocket.
However, a closer look into Dobbs’ numbers from last season could reveal an underwhelming reality. Dobbs’ two biggest outings throwing the football came against two of the SEC’s worst defenses, Kentucky and South Carolina. Kentucky ranked No. 11 in the SEC in total defense, giving up 407 yards per game, while South Carolina ranked No. 13, giving up 434. In fact, Dobbs’ best game through the air, one in which he threw for 301 yards, was against the Gamecocks, a team that had the absolute worst pass defense in the conference.
Against the two SEC Championship Game participants, Alabama and Missouri, Dobbs threw for 192 and 195 yards, respectively. Granted, he didn’t play the full game against Alabama, but what about the final game of the regular season against Vanderbilt? Fighting for bowl eligibility, Tennessee struggled past the worst team in the SEC, winning 24-17, as Dobbs threw for 92 yards and zero touchdowns. In the bowl win over Iowa, Dobbs threw for only 129 yards. The good news for Vols fans is that Dobbs is, without a doubt, elusive. He ran for 75 yards against Alabama and 91 yards against Vanderbilt, a defense that got better as head coach Derek Mason became more involved. And of course, he set a Tennessee quarterback rushing record with 166 yards on the ground against South Carolina.
The point here is two-fold, and it could be seen as a good news/bad news situation for Tennessee fans. The good news is that Dobbs is an undeniable athlete. His running ability does help with the offensive line woes and he has shown he can escape the pocket and pick up yards against capable defenses. However, the bad news is a truth that Vol fans must accept until proven otherwise. Dobbs is still a somewhat-erratic, inconsistent passer. While he may have electrified the Tennessee program last season, he still hasn’t shown that he can get it done throwing the ball against the big boys. Dobbs will have plenty of opportunities to prove his worth in 2015, but there are tall mountains to climb.
Another problem for Tennessee that everyone seems to be forgetting about is the glaring hole at middle linebacker. Who will replace A.J. Johnson? Also, who will be able to get the job done on the interior of the defensive line? Kahlil McKenzie and Shy Tuttle both have NFL potential, but both will be true freshmen. When it comes to stopping the run, a deep rotation on the defensive line and a consistent tackler at middle linebacker are essential. The Vols will face three opponents in the month of October who share a simple philosophy: Pound the opponent into submission. Can Tennessee’s front seven withstand the bruising blows that will be delivered by Arkansas, Georgia and Alabama?
Recently, ESPN released its Football Power Index which has Tennessee favored in 11 of its 12 regular season games. The Vols are lurking between No. 15 and No. 25 in most of the preseason polls, but the consensus opinion is that Tennessee is poised and ready to compete for the SEC East. Jones’ team finally has the pieces in place to be a contender. The Vols only have four true road games — Florida, Alabama, Kentucky and Missouri. Tennessee is this year’s “media darling,” the team that is ready to take the next step and return to glory.
Hardly anyone is questioning the hype surrounding the Vols. After all, Jones has done things at Tennessee that haven’t been done since Fulmer’s heyday. Jones has made great strides, but those strides haven’t shown up in the win column against premier opponents yet. When wins over South Carolina and Iowa are considered major progress, there may be more work to do in the rebuilding phase. It could be until 2016 before the Vols are fully ready to compete.
The next logical step in the process is for Tennessee to start winning, and it looks like this could be the year. But I ask simply, what if the Vols don’t? What will happen if Tennessee starts the season 2-2 and loses to both Oklahoma and Florida? The wheels will fall off the wagon, that’s what. After all the good Jones has done for Tennessee, some of the radicals will want him fired. If you don’t think they can change their minds that quickly, take a trip back to 2005 or ‘08. Regardless, Jones would have another year, but the seat would begin to warm up and the pressure would build.
Of course, this is all hypothetical. And it’s not a knack on Tennessee fans. Vol fans are passionate and loyal, but irrelevancy in college football makes people do some crazy things. I just wonder if Tennessee fans could handle another 7-6 season without losing it. Even 8-5 to some would be considered a failure, due primarily to the fact that Tennessee has been the poster child to the “we’re back” campaign this offseason.
The fact of the matter is that while Tennessee certainly does have pieces in place to make a run, it still faces some very good opponents. Other than Bowling Green, Western Carolina, North Texas and Vanderbilt, which games could be circled as definite wins? Any college football coach will tell you that 7-6 and 10-3 aren’t that far apart. It could come down to a matter of just a few plays in the highly competitive SEC and toss-up teams such as South Carolina, Florida and Missouri are capable of making plays. If the ball doesn’t bounce right, the improvement made by the Vols over the past three years might not show up in the win column.
Sure, 10 wins is possible, but let’s pump the brakes until we see what Tennessee is really all about this year. It’s a good thing to have expectations. Tennessee’s expectations haven’t been this high in a long time. But with expectations, at some point comes a subsequent reality. In 2005, the Vols were expected to contend for a national championship, but their reality was a 5-6 season and a home loss to Vanderbilt. Tennessee fans could be set up for disappointment in 2015. John Wooden once said, “All of life is peaks and valleys. Don’t let the peaks get too high and the valleys too low.” The Vols are up high right now, but Tennessee fans should know as well as any fanbase what lows can ensue.
With 2005 in mind, let’s just hope fans don’t have their Motorola Razr phones ready to slice through Butch Jones’ contract if the Vols don’t win 10 games.