Tennessee fans have had little to cheer about the past few seasons. Not much now reminds them of the heady times during the 1990's and the early 2000's. Back when Tennessee football was on top of the college world.
SEC champs in 1989, 90, 97 and 98. To top off the 90's, they went a perfect 13-0 and also added a national championship in 1998.
Then again in 2001, Tennessee upset No. 1 ranked Florida at the Swamp on December second. That win propelled the Vols to the SEC East title, a 10-1 record and the No. 2 ranking in the BCS Poll.
All they needed do was beat a No. 15 ranked LSU team they had beaten by 11 earlier in the year and they would win the SEC again. In addition, a win would give them the right to face No. 1 Miami in the Rose Bowl for a shot at another national title.
All went to plan as UT entered the fourth quarter of the championship game ahead of LSU 17-14 and driving for more.
Fifteen minutes later, LSU was celebrating a 31-20 win and the SEC title. Tennessee went on to thoroughly whip a great Michigan team 45-17 in their bowl and finish the 2001 season 11-2, ranked No. 4 in the nation.
That marks the last time UT finished the season ranked inside the top five. Though they did win the SEC east in 2004 and 2007, UT slipped overall. Still respected by all, they were no longer feared by the college elite.
Then came 2008 and all the changes and desperation as the proud program tries to rebuild.
Now, as the 2012 season begins to slip away, the Vols are 3-5 and have four games to play. Four chances left to have a winning regular season and earn a bowl bid.
Two of the four should be over-matched and easy wins. The other two, Missouri and Vanderbilt in Nashville, could go either way.
The Vols have plenty of issues as they continue to work on what is statistically the worst defensive unit they have ever fielded. Their offense, however, has players.
In today's college football, a good offense can take you a long way. Through their eight games so far, the Vols have played teams that have been—or currently are—ranked as high as No. 1, 2, 3, 5, 11 and 23 (N.C. State) in the nation.
While they have averaged giving up over 31 points per game with this daunting schedule, their average scoring is 34.5 per game. This despite games with Alabama, Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. All who have defenses that have been ranked in the top five nationally this year.
Yet the Vols are tied for No. 3 nationally in sacks allowed with only four and No. 6 nationally in tackles for loss with an average of four per game. In addition, the Vols have improved greatly running the football this year.
Most of these improvements are the results of significant improvement with the offensive line. New line coach Sam Pittman has taken the talent that was already here and has them playing as a unit.
Pittman has made a name for himself in coaching linemen. Before UT, he spent the past five years coaching at North Carolina. While there, he recruited and coached some of the most talented linemen in the nation.
Pittman spent four years at Northern Illinois before going to Carolina. There, the rushing yards per game averaged 160, 238, 207 and 165. Of course for part of that time, their main back was the man who is now the Falcon's top guy, Michael Turner.
Pittman was hired by Coach Dooley before summer camp this year. He has steadily been working with the linemen to change the dismal rushing numbers from last year.
Also, as a result of UT's new found rushing ability, opponents can no longer ignore the run game and play the pass. Passing efficiency has increased greatly this year as a result.
Fans can have hope of seeing good, competitive games that UT can win the final four games of the Vols season. Their improved line play, as well as not facing top ten talent week after week should allow for some wins. In addition, it will allow UT to work with the younger players to build lines for the future.
There are still issues to be resolved to get the Vols back to the upper reaches of the SEC. Unlike the past few years however, there are definite improvements to point to and see the progress.
Back when the Vols last had to dig out from the bottom in the late 70's and early 80's, it was a quality passing game that got the ball rolling. Then, as now, it started with great line play.
We have the coach we need working with UT's linemen now. There is no better place for the reclamation project to dig in and take hold than on the lines. The way back has been slow but progress is being made. Just watch the line-play if you want to see the results.