If I asked you to define the off-season in one word or phrase, what would you say about the last 11 years?
Once upon a time, Lane Kiffin might have been the most anticipated act at SEC Media Days. The Vols were 5-7 the year before, but the new coach turned the volume all the way up. It wasn’t just on a dozen Saturdays in the fall; Kiffin, more than anyone, made the off-season fly by because he essentially took it away. There were no off days for Tennessee fans.
2010: Not Kiffin
And in his absence the next year, things were still really about him. Even though there was less preseason excitement for what the 2010 Vols could do on the field than just about any team in my lifetime at that point, we rallied around the new coach because he wasn’t the old coach, even if the new coach went 4-8 at Louisiana Tech the year before. Derek Dooley never made you set a couch on fire.
The Vols built their own anticipation in 2011 behind Tyler Bray’s arrival in November 2010, a 6-7 team that should’ve finished 8-5. It paid off for exactly one Saturday, a 45-23 thrashing of Butch Jones and Cincinnati. And then it got hurt. By the time the Vols amassed enough firepower to compete on the highest levels in 2012, Dooley had lost to LSU, Alabama, and Arkansas by 104 combined points and lost to Kentucky for the first time since 1984.
The 2012 Vols felt both exciting and desperate this time seven years ago. Excitement won out against NC State in the opener. Desperation was undefeated from there.
For Butch Jones, it seemed like his first season would generate even less interest than anything since the early 1980’s, the last time the Vols were in a funk like this. But he recruited his way out of it, forging a belief he could get Tennessee back even as the Vols went 5-7 in 2013. You got to see some of that talent in 2014, with another superb class coming in behind it. The Vols almost squandered all that excitement with a loss to Florida in the middle of a brutal schedule, but Josh Dobbs won it back in November.
2015: Are we back?
2016: We’re back!
Then we thought 2015 might be the year, and it almost was. Then we were sure 2016 would be – the only off-season with the kind of hype we were once accustomed to since Fulmer left the sideline – and it almost was. And then it really wasn’t.
2017: Last Year
And then we made enough noise talking about that to get us through the following off-season to 2017.
2018: The opposite of drama
Last year, then, after all the coaching search fiasco, was the quietest year one yet. From Dooley to Butch to Pruitt, we got another peg further from the good ol’ days, which makes it harder to believe in the next new guy. But it was still year one, and Fulmer was back in the picture. There was at least some curiosity, then two ranked wins, but six four-possession losses, and another 5-7.
Throw in one of the most talked-about basketball seasons in school history, and here we are: less than six weeks from kickoff, and all is quiet in Big Orange Country. It was quiet in Hoover too: no Vol made first, second, or third team All-SEC in the starting 22.
Now a dozen years removed from ten wins and a division title, the T on the helmet no longer gets the benefit of the doubt. These Vols, and their coach, will have to prove not just some of it, but all of it.
This fall will be my 14th season writing about the Vols, and I’m at 30+ years of going to the games. And as I type, 40 days from kickoff, this off-season carries less anticipation than any I can remember.
But I’m not convinced the quiet is a bad thing.
Since Fulmer left, how long have you felt good about things?
- The second half of 2009
- November 2010
- The first two weeks in 2011
- The first two weeks in 2012
- One game in 2013
- November 2014
- The second half of 2015
- The first half of 2016
- The first week in 2017
- Two games in 2018
The 2019 Vols don’t have to go undefeated to provide the kind of optimism that would rank quite high on that list. Can they provide a spark? Can they provide and then sustain hope? Does Pruitt have a Year Two jump in him?
The head coach has to prove himself. The same is true for this entire roster. It’s been a long time since we’ve been surprised. But surprises land best when it’s quiet.