Tennessee hasn’t won an SEC championship since 1998. The Volunteers haven’t been to a bowl game since 2010. They’ve lost six or more games in seven of the last nine seasons. They haven’t lost fewer than four games in a season since 2004.
It goes without saying that fans of the SEC’s second all-time winningest program are tired of their team’s ongoing rebuilding process. Phillip Fulmer tried to recover from his first losing season, but once offensive David Cutcliffe left, Fulmer lost more than he won again and was let go in 2008. Lane Kiffin blew through Knoxville and in a single season managed to pour gasoline on the fire that Fulmer had left. When UT brass panicked and hired Derek Dooley — a coach who’d gone 4-8 the year before at Louisiana Tech — the nosedive was complete. Three coaches in three years. Twice the roster attrition associated with a single coaching change… and then Dooley was the wrong hire on top of everything else.
Enter Butch Jones who’s won over ex-Vol players and most Vol fans. He’s also won over recruits, landing a top five class for Tennessee in February and ranking #7 in Rivals.com’s current national rankings. Some are even suggesting that UT might be ready for a step forward in 2014 after a 5-7 record in 2013. Which brings us to our big question for the Volunteers:
How can anyone expect Tennessee to post a better record in 2014?
Nothing against Jones or the hotshot signees he’s lured to the foothills of the Smokies, but two things will be working against UT this fall — its roster and its schedule. Other than, how was the play, Ms. Lincoln?
Looking over the rankings for the Vols’ last five recruiting classes would suggest there’s talent available. But a more thorough check reveals the attrition connected to constant coaching churn. Defections, dismissals and dud signees left Tennessee slow and thin in 2013. After nearly knocking off Georgia and then upsetting South Carolina, the Volunteers were exploited by top five teams Alabama (45-10), Missouri (31-3) and Auburn (55-23). Five of those six halves of football featured true freshman quarterback Joshua Dobbs who was quite literally thrown to the wolves (and elephants and tigers).
It will take more than one very good recruiting class to fix all that’s ailing Tennessee. Jones has admitted that his true freshman will get plenty of action this fall, suggesting that UT will be the youngest team in the country. That’s especially true along the offensive and defensive lines. In the SEC, are there two worse spots to have manned by youth?
The Volunteers are the only FBS team out of 125-plus needing to replace their entire offensive line. Not one regular starter returns. No other FBS squad is facing that this year and no other FBS squad faced that last year. That’s how rare a complete rollover on the O-line is. Worse, the Vols will also have to replace every single starter on their defensive line as well. Just mull that over for a few seconds. Nine linemen. All new. In the SEC.
Now to the schedule, where nine of Tennessee’s 12 opponents are coming off bowl bids. Utah State (Poinsettia Bowl in 2013) will serve as the opener in Knoxville. Since 2009 the Aggies have come thisclose to knocking off Texas A&M (38-30 in 2009), Oklahoma (31-24 in 2010), Auburn (42-38 in 2011), Wisconsin (16-14 in 2012) and Southern California (17-14 in 2013). Yeah, they’ll be a breeze for a squad with rookies on both lines.
After Utah State come Arkansas State (GoDaddy Bowl), a road trip to Oklahoma (Sugar Bowl), a road trip to Georgia (Gator Bowl) and a game with Florida. If all the breaks go against them, it’s not inconceivable that the Volunteers could actually open their season 0-5. Then come Chattanooga, Ole Miss (Music City Bowl) on the road, Alabama (Sugar Bowl), South Carolina (Capital One Bowl) on the road, Kentucky, Missouri (Cotton Bowl) and Vanderbilt (BBVA Compass Bowl) on the road.
Improvement in 2014? If Tennessee, boasting a young roster and facing a brutal schedule, can manage to match last season’s 5-7 record, Jones and his staff will have done a very fine job in Knoxville. A better record should finally come in 2015, but this season has all the makings of another rough one for the Volunteers.