For the first time since 2008, Tennessee is entering a football season with the same head coach as in the previous one. For a school that had exactly two head coaches from 1977-2008, that's a pretty remarkable statement.
Indeed, stolid continuity is what made Tennessee different from other SEC programs over the last decade and a half. For 16 full seasons, Phillip Fulmer was on the sideline in Knoxville. For the final 14 of them, the mustachioed John Chavis was by his side running the defense. For most of that time David Cutcliffe was running the offense too, and during his sabbatical at Ole Miss, we had the safe soporific stylrings Randy Sanders filling in.
We knew exactly what we were going to get from Tennessee. Some seasons it would be better than others, but Rocky Top was one constant in the shifting landscape of the nation's most competitive conference.
That regime got stale like a week-old Krispy Kreme doughnut though, and when it came time to pick a spread option offense to liven things up, Fulmer chose... poorly. He was rewarded with an early retirement, Cutcliffe ended up in the salt mines of Duke football, and Chavis went off to rescue LSU's defense. The tumultuous transition from there to Lane Kiffin to Derek Dooley has been chronicled many times, so it needs no rehash here.
That doesn't mean that chapter of UT football has closed though. Just last weekend Tennessee had its day in front of the NCAA to explain itself over many rules violations, and the threat of future penalties hangs over the program. It helps Dooley out that the NCAA seems to want to tie in 2009's violations with Kiffin personally, but that doesn't meant the football program in Knoxville won't feel any penalties. That's just one more thing for Dooley to worry about, on top of building his first major program and dealing with several years of roster attrition.
The good news is that the Vols have a nice young nucleus on offense building. Tyler Bray came on strong as the season progressed, Tauren Poole rushed for over 1,000 yards, and Justin Hunter has the potential to be the best receiver in the SEC within a couple years. The defense has some nice looking guys on it too like Malik Jackson, Prentiss Waggner, and (should he make it back to school by fall) Janzen Jackson.
The bad news is that they're still shorthanded relative to a lot of other teams, and many of the best looking guys on the team are young. There is no doubt that Tennessee is still in a rebuilding phase, and it probably won't be competing for the SEC East until 2012. I hedge that by saying "probably" only because there are so many ways that the other East teams can fail. It's a highly variable division with no juggernauts this fall.
Tennessee still has some digging to do to get out of the mess it was in the third week of January 2010. Dooley appears to have done an admirable job of it so far. Whether he'll bring the program above it and become an SEC contender remains to be seen, but his steady hand is giving the program the opportunity to get there.
No change at all is a welcome change on Rocky Top.