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Tennessee Still Yearns for the Return of the Big Two // SEC 2011

There were parts of Tennessee's 2010 season that it was easy to see coming. The odds of an 0-4 October as the Vols faced LSU, Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina in consecutive weeks -- with three of those games being on the road. The chances of rallying back from that deficit to clinch bowl eligibility.

But there are the parts of the season that it was impossible to predict. Namely, the reasons that fans and rivals alike quipped that Tennessee was 6-2 in games in which the Vols had the lead when time expired. It's not worth reliving the bizarre endings of the games against LSU and North Carolina, other than to say that either team would be memorable; how one team ended up on the losing end of both of them is almost inexplicable.

Then again, it seems like just another one of the many unlucky wounds -- some of them self-inflicted -- that Tennessee has suffered over the last several years. The Clawfulfense, the end of Phil Fulmer, the hiring and classless debut of Lane Kiffin, the departure of Lane Kiffin and the disorganized search for the second new head coach in as many seasons had all indicated long before those two games that if it weren't for bad luck, Tennesee would have no luck at all.

Which makes it hard to remember, perhaps, that there was a time when Tennessee was once one of the Big Two in the SEC East. Until Georgia broke through in 2002, no team other than Florida and Tennessee had ever won the SEC East. The Big Three then continued to essentially run the division until South Carolina broke through last year.

All the while, Tennessee seemed to be losing its status as one of the powers in the SEC East. While the Vols had won the 2007 division title in a series of lucky bounces that made the UNC and LSU games look almost normal, that season remains the only one since 2004 when Tennessee headed to Atlanta at the end of the year. Georgia has two in the same period, as does Florida -- and, again, even South Carolina has one.

In other words, the team that seems to have suffered most from the rise of Georgia and South Carolina has been Tennessee. It's hard to tie down whether this is because of recruiting -- how can you tell where a prospect might have gone if he didn't head to Athens or Columbia? -- or because of better coaching. Or perhaps something else entirely. But once it got rid of Ron Zook, Florida continued to thrive in the post-Big Two Era, while Tennessee all but imploded both on the field and off.

That said, Tennessee showed signs in its first season under Derek Dooley that he might be the man to revive Tennessee's flagging fortunes. After all, the Vols had been defeated by at least two touchdowns in five of their last seven games when Dooley sparked the turnaround, a milestone that would have marked the end of the season for a poorly-coached football team. If an intangible like leadership really can help a team win games, Dooley seems to have it in spades.

But it's going to eventually take more than just intangibles to turn around Tennessee's slide. As last season shows, getting fewer bad-luck breaks certainly wouldn't hurt.