There may not be a larger gap between program history and current perception in the SEC than there is with Tennessee. Only Alabama has won more SEC championships than the Volunteers have, and the two programs would be tied if you threw out the 1970s for no good reason.
And yet, the last time UT went to Atlanta was in 2007 when this year's college freshman were ten years old. The team's last SEC title and national title were both in 1998 and barely happened after they were born. Every so often an argument will appear about cross-division rivalries in one place or another, and inevitably someone will question the importance of Alabama-Tennessee on the basis of UT not being on an elite level anymore. It's a has-been, in other words.
The 85-scholarship era has hurt power teams like Tennessee and Nebraska who reside in states that don't produce much talent. The Vols specifically have been hurt by a string of coaching mishaps, from the messy exit of Phillip Fulmer to the one-and-done year of Lane Kiffin to the ineffective Derek Dooley. The thought of hiring a recruiting ace in Kiffin wasn't bad in and of itself after declining results from Fulmer's classes, but the strikeout rate on Fulmer's final two and Kiffin's one class is just crazy. Dooley turned out to be in over his head with the job anyway, but trying to dig out of that hole was never going to be an easy task for anyone.
Butch Jones has done well so far with rebuilding the program, and it's no surprise that much of it due to out-of-state signees. He found this year's preseason third team All-SEC quarterback Joshua Dobbs and second team DB Cameron Sutton from Georgia, and first team LB Curt Maggitt is a Dooley holdover recruit from Florida. Top receivers Marquez North (North Carolina), Pig Howard (Florida), Von Pearson (Virginia), and Jason Croom (Georgia) are out-of-state guys too. Alvin Kamara figures to get plenty of carries alongside Jalen Hurd, and he's from Georgia by way of a redshirt year at Alabama and a year at a Kansas JUCO. Hurd, Derek Barnett, and Jalen Reeves-Maybin will make sure that Volunteer State natives are playing big roles too, but UT has to rely on guys from the whole region. Jones has done well in that respect.
Dooley, despite hitting on a few guys like Maggitt and Howard, didn't do such a great job of bringing in and developing talent. It's why this year's starting lineup doesn't feature many players who signed before 2013, and it's also why you hear that Tennessee is both young and experienced. Jones has taken some lumps with playing a lot of his own signees the past two seasons, and the basic debate in the preseason about the Vols is whether that strategy will pay off big this year or next. Is Tennessee poised to break out or still a year away?
A potential bump in the road to that breakout is the first big break in continuity in the Jones era. Mike Bajakian, who had been Jones's offensive coordinator for Jones's entire time as head coach at three different schools, left to the NFL. Jones replaced him with Mike DeBord, who employed Jones on his staff at Central Michigan from 2000-03. It was an odd choice, personal history aside, given that Jones is committed to a modern, hurry-up spread scheme while DeBord is best known for running a staid offense under Lloyd Carr at Michigan.
DeBord has also been an NFL position coach since 2008, which means he wasn't on the college level during a time of large offensive developments. In 2008, Chip Kelly was in his second year as Oregon's offensive coordinator, Gus Malzahn was still toiling at Tulsa, and Oklahoma became the first blue blood program to run a full-time hurry-up offense. There wasn't yet a term for packaged plays, which hadn't existed for long and weren't widely used back then but are now the offensive state of the art. He spent the last two years working as an administrator for non-football sports back at Michigan. If you're going to cast a suspicious eye at other SEC coordinator hires like Jon Hoke and Kevin Steele for being guys for whom there wasn't really any competition, there's no reason not to with DeBord as well.
The one part of the rebuild that Jones hasn't had time to do yet is build true depth. Non-Vols fans out there can't name Dobbs's backup, and don't say Nathan Peterman—he transferred to Pitt. There is basically nothing behind Hurd and Kamara at running back. Last year's offensive line was a mess in part to turning over all five positions, and it's unclear if this year's will be leaps and bounds better or just kind of better. The defense is in better shape in this regard than the offense is, although linebacker other than Maggitt (who splits time as an end) and Reeves-Maybin is a question mark.
Tennessee is a team that should look pretty good coming out of the gate. There aren't a ton of true mystery position battles other than middle linebacker, and the top line of the depth chart could be—and has been, recently—a lot worse. The danger comes late in the season if injuries and fatigue set in, but even that is less of a concern than it could be. After playing Alabama, the last five games of the season include Kentucky, North Texas, and Vanderbilt.
The Vols are and aren't a year away. From having the classic look of a divisional contender, Tennessee is a year away. From having a shot at winning the division if everything goes right, Tennessee isn't. UT isn't the true wild card of the division since its floor is higher than Florida's is, but it still defies your ability to predict where it'll end up.