Tennessee fans have been a more humble bunch recently. It's difficult to be uppity when your team hasn't had a winning season since its 2008 limp to a 7-6 finish under Lane Kiffin and co. Still, what is getting some Vol fans collective dander up is how the rest of the world seems convinced this is the new normal for UT football.
This season's college football preview magazines rate the Vols at number 46 and 54 nationally, on the first two editions published. It is a safe bet the other publications will follow up with predictions much the same.
We UT fans take pride in being in the top 10 in all time wins, all time bowl wins, second in all time SEC titles, six credible national titles, etc., etc. But step outside our little circle into the rest of the world and UT has quickly become an after-thought.
Reading the articles and listening to talk radio, the pervasive theme is the Volunteers are no longer top shelf. Of course that's true for now. But, the impression I get is they are expected to stay that way. While the fan-base is convinced this is just a down cycle that will pass. In fact, the feeling there is Tennessee is already on the way back up.
I heard an example recently on a nationally syndicated show where the host was making a point about how Alabama isn't tested by their yearly cross-divisional rivalry (versus Tennessee) the way LSU (versus Florida) is. Of course, even UT fans will admit that is true right now. But, football is somewhat cyclical and you expect teams to be up and down. In years past someone on the show would bring that fact up. But this time, it wasn't said.
That example speaks to the impression outside of Vol nation that UT has become a second tier program. Worse, it seems to imply that no one expects it to change, either. I can only hope that ticks people inside the UT program off as much as it does some fans.
What became of the talent UT signed the past few years? In the three years Dooley was coach, UT had recruiting classes that averaged ranking around number 13 in the nation. The class signed by the new coaching staff was ranked at between 20 and 25, depending on which service you ask. The average of all four should have UT solidly in the top 16 to 18 recruiting classes over the previous four years.
These rankings were not done by UT fans. They were composed by the people who rank everyone else. Yet, the news about Tennessee lately is how the team lacks speed in the defensive and offensive backfield along with play-makers overall.
The loss of Bray, Patterson and Hunter was a loss of 80 percent of the Vols offense in 2012. Still, that doesn't mean there aren't players ready to step up and replace much of that production. UT likely wont rely as much on passing but the run game may be much improved in 2013.
Nearly everyone agrees that UT is returning one of the very best offensive lines in college football. That's a great start but is that all the Tennessee program retained from four recruiting classes?
The Vols had a coaching staff who couldn't get it done on the field for the past three years and that's too bad. But, the new staff has coached together for several years and has proven they can win in the leagues where they coached.
Realistic Fans don't expect Tennessee to compete for the SEC East this year. They also realize that this team will face Oregon, Alabama, Georgia, Florida and South Carolina on their schedule. That is five teams who should be ranked in the top 10 or 12 in the nation. Yet, even with inferior coaching last year, UT played two of those teams to the wire.
I don't think it is expecting too much for the Vols to win enough to get to a minor bowl this year. By the comments coming from the team, it appears this will be a focused and motivated group. If I were part of that staff or this team, I think I would be more than just motivated, I think I would be angry.
Perhaps they will make the apparent write off by many as motivation to do great things with this year. As for the realistic fans in Volunteer Nation, it is not forgotten that this proud program will make their way to the top again. Though big things are not expected this season, don't write off the Tennessee Vols just yet.
This group of coaches and players have much higher expectations than number 54 nationally. And proving people wrong can be an excellent motivator if it makes you angry enough to act on it.