We don't usually do recycling jobs here at Team Speed Kills, but in thinking about Tennessee this past season, I can't help but reflect on something I wrote a year and a half ago, before Derek Dooley's final season at Tennessee. To wit:
But when it comes to the place of this season in the overarching narrative of Tennessee football, the Volunteers need to get back to being a relevant team in the SEC again. Because we're entering what could be the eighth season of a pretty steady decline in the fortunes of the program in Knoxville.
And this summer, we'll be entering season ten of what could become an unprecedented slide for Tennessee. The Vols have posted losing records in each of the last four seasons; in its history, the Tennessee football team has never had losing records for five straight years.
This year's SEC Championship Game will mark the 16th anniversary of the last time Tennessee won the conference. The last time the Volunteers won the division was in 2007. Since then, the Vols have not had a winning season in conference and have placed higher than a tie for third in the SEC East East once. South Carolina has won 18 more games than Tennessee over the last three seasons. Vanderbilt has won nine more. There are more grim statistics where those came from, but that's enough to provide the gist of it.
It's not entirely fair to judge Butch Jones' work at Tennessee so far through that prism, but that's what happens when you take on a rebuilding job. Jones was brought to Knoxville to turn around what was fast becoming a moribund program, and there's no telling how long the faithful will remain patient. It is a good bet, though, that a record run of ineptitude will not build him much goodwill.
Jones will almost certainly get through 2015, and he might need it. Hampered by the coaching transition and the malaise in the program, the 2013 recruiting class ranked 10th in the SEC according to Rivals. This year's class is better -- ranked third in the conference as of this writing -- but that's at least in part due to the size of the class. And, in any case, banking on a group of freshmen to bring success in the SEC has rarely worked out well for anyone.
The losses from this past season's team, meanwhile, are fairly steep. Running back Rajion Neal -- easily the most productive player on offense, with 102.7 yards per game and more than a third of the team's touchdowns -- is gone. Four of the five starting offensive linemen from the Vols last game of 2013 [PDF], against Kentucky, were seniors. As were all four of the defensive linemen (counting the hybrid LEO position) and two of the linebackers.
At least A.J. Johnson is hanging around. Johnson was the best defensive player on the team, with 106 tackles, but even he's going to have trouble making up too much ground with six new starters around him.
Oh, and did we mention the schedule? Yes, the Vols trade out a home game with Auburn and get a road game against Ole Miss, which is probably a better deal all things considered, but they also visit Oklahoma. Even assuming wins against Kentucky and at Vanderbilt -- no sure thing over the last couple of years -- Tennessee could need at least one more conference win just to get to a bowl.
Which means that Tennessee's fight to regain relevancy in the SEC is likely to be on hold for at least another year. Not certain, of course -- nothing is certain when it comes to college football, and particularly when it comes to what could be one of the more intriguing races for the SEC East in years. A bowl game could be at least a 50-50 proposition, and breaking the string of losing seasons is within reach. But relevancy could take another year (and recruiting class) or two.
It's probably best for Tennessee fans to brace for Year 11.