Hard as it might be to believe, we have reached the midpoint of the college football season for all of the SEC teams. We look at what's happened to each of them and where they might go from here.
The biggest question this year was not whether it would get bad for Volunteers fans; with a difficult schedule, a depleted roster and a program going through its third head coach in three years, there was really no doubt of that.
But the question was how bad it might get -- a question that was somewhat answered when Tennessee needed double-overtime to defeat UAB at home and then completely cleared up when Georgia shelled them 41-14. Now it seems to be little more than a question of playing out the string.
Because the season has played out so far pretty much how someone who expected the Vols to go 5-7 would expect it to. Consider that Tennessee would essentially have to sweep the most winnable games at Memphis and at Vanderbilt, win what could be a toss-up against Ole Miss and then defeat either Alabama, South Carolina or Kentucky to get to bowl eligibility. To get there requires expecting everything to go right and nothing to go wrong for Tennessee -- and the truth is that neither of those have happened this year and it's probably not reasonable to expect that to change.
It's not that the future is hopeless for Tennessee, because I really don't believe that's the case. Despite some concerns about some of his decisions, Derek Dooley is by no means Lane Kiffin, which has to be considered an improvement over where the program was headed after the firing of Phil Fulmer in 2008. With things not going smoothly in Gainesville or Athens right now, Dooley has a narrow opening for the kind of recruiting pitch that could put the Vols right back in the SEC East conversation.
The truth is, it's very hard for any program as good as Tennessee has historically been to be bad for too long. It's happened -- with Notre Dame being a prime example -- but it's rare. South Carolina might improve and Kentucky might get better and Vanderbilt might find a way to not be Vanderbilt once every few years, but Florida and Georgia and Tennessee are probably always going to be in contention more years than not. If it were possible to kill an elite SEC program, Alabama would have accomplished the feat in the early part of the 2000s, and they couldn't. The best programs in the conference are always a good coaching hire or a good recruiting class away from being great again.
The immediate future, though, looks pretty convincingly bleak. Even if the Vols can put together a 4-2 stretch to make a bowl, they're likely headed for Birmingham, and the Music City Bowl is about the best they can hope for. It's almost impossible to see this team making a New Year's Day bowl -- or whatever you want to call the equivalent now -- and the BCS is out of the question.
Tradition can only carry you so far in a down year. But it's nice to have when you're trying to make sure those down years are few and far between.