Before 2008, it wasn’t considered a surprise for Tennessee to be in the SEC title game any year.
In fact, in 11 years from 1997 through 2007, Tennessee appeared in the SEC title game five times (97, 98, 01, 04 and 07) and won the title twice (97 and 98).
Since their last appearance in the 2007 championship game - a 21-14 loss to soon-to-be BCS Champion LSU - the Vols have fallen on hard times.
The 2010 and 2011 teams set the two year record in futility for Tennessee. They tallied the first ever back-to-back losing seasons in over 100 years of football. To top off the Derek Dooley era, the 2012 squad went 5-7, making it three losing seasons in a row.
Since the 2007 season, Tennessee has had four losing seasons, is on their fourth coaching staff and has been to only two minor bowl games—both losses. Expectations nowadays, are a bit more conservative for the realistic fans of The Big Orange.
A slump like this presents the perfect setup for this year's team to become a story similar to Texas A&M of 2012. Just think, the Volunteers suddenly media darlings again. Based on the past five years, winning say nine of their 12 regular season games would have them the talk of the SEC again. And like A&M last year, they wouldn't even need to make a SEC Championship Game appearance to be the big turn-around team in the conference.
A 9-3 regular season record for Tennessee in 2013 would be a monumental accomplishment. Considering all the issues mentioned here. But hey, that’s only a partial list of the obstacles this team would have to overcome to get there. In addition, several other stumbling blocks exist to reversing recent fortunes.
Things like that fourth new coaching staff in the past five seasons only arrived in Knoxville in the offseason and have yet to coach the first fall practice. They inherit a team that lost the play-makers responsible for over 80 percent of the 2012 offensive production, along with a defense that ranked as worst ever statistically in the school's history.
In addition, the Vols' 2013 schedule includes trips to top 10 programs Oregon, Florida and Alabama. As well as home games versus South Carolina, Georgia and a rejuvenated Vanderbilt—though not top 10—who still beat U.T. 41-18 last year.
With all this baggage attached, most forecasters and reporters think winning six or seven and making a bowl game would be a very good coaching job this year. Seven wins and a bowl appearance would be a great start for the new staff. Anything above that in 2013 should be worthy of a parade down Kingston Pike.
That said there are some very good things happening at U.T. now. The new excitement and attitude may allow this group of players and coaches to become a better team than the sum of all the individual parts.
The new coaching staff has quickly won over the majority of Vols fans. Something the previous coach wasn't able to do. The staff has also repaired some relationships with former players and supporters. In addition, players have commented publicly about how much more they enjoy playing and practicing again this year.
Most importantly, the talent level of this team overall isn't as bad as reporting may lead one to think. Talented depth in some areas is a true concern. But this team still has talent.
They lost their big name quarterback and receivers but return one of the best offensive lines in the country. They are returning to their 4-3 base from the 3-4 and have linemen and linebackers who are better play-makers than the coaching showed last season.
It is a certainty the Vols could use those two game-breaking receivers (Hunter and Patterson) from 2012, regardless of the offensive style this year. Though there are talented players who will get an opportunity to fill the bill this year.
Still, the bigger question is will the new staff be able to turn one of the four quarterbacks here into an effective thrower who can run when he has to. Based on their experiences at Central Michigan and Cincinnati, it appears this group of coaches can mold quality quarterbacks to be better than average in their system. If so, U.T. will wind up in good shape there as well.
Tyler Bray and company were good offensive players. But, Bray lacked the decision-making ability to lead his team to wins in the big games. That may have been primarily on Bray or on the coaching. Likely both contributed some to the 5-7 record of a team talented enough to win nine games last year.
Looking back, you will see U.T. lost some big SEC games by just a play or two last year.
In the long run, the buck stops at the top when the team has three consecutive losing seasons.
Derek Dooley just didn't get it done in Knoxville. But, unlike Lane Kiffin, he cared enough not to ruin the future for a couple more years after he was gone.
Coach Dooley and the previous staff steadily improved both the talent level and the quality of the people they recruited.
An amazing feat given the large number of high school coaches and recruiting connections it’s said they alienated.
Butch Jones has brought excitement about U.T. Football back to the fan base. But, more importantly, he has brought it back to the players on campus and to potential recruits. In football, having the right attitude—and talented players—makes a difference on the win / loss record.
College football reporting on a team's future is usually based solely on their recent past. Back when Tennessee won regularly, the polls and reporters ranked them high. Recently, since they haven't won regularly, they have been ranked low. That is just the way it works in the football prognostication business.
Red-shirt Freshman Johnny Manziel wasn't on anyone's Heisman radar last spring. Also, coming off a 7-6 season in 2011 and with a new coaching staff, predictions for 2012 by the so-called experts were pretty conservative for Texas A&M. After their unexpected level of success in 2012, check out the predictions for this year.
The thing about Tennessee football right now is they are not as lacking in talent as the reporting may indicate. No, it’s not likely at all next year's Heisman winner is wearing orange right now, either. But somewhere between Dooley's last 5-7 team and double digit wins is where the current Volunteer talent level lies.
U.T. fans should not have overly high expectations for 2013. Still, if things fall their way, they have a shot to be the most talked about team that won’t play for a conference championship in 2013.