May is often the longest month for college football fans. And around here, this May falls in place behind the quietest spring practice I can remember. Basketball continues to own an unusual percentage of the conversation; it comes with the territory of the third-highest paying contract in the game and the process by which that contract came about. You’ll find more Tennessee players in 2019 NBA mock drafts than the actual 2019 NFL Draft and its 2020 mock counterparts. And the baseball Vols were ranked 20th last week before a sweep at #5 Arkansas bounced them from the polls, but they should make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2005.
Some of it is the other sports being at recent or historic highs. Some of it is football now on an 11-year run of 67-70. But this feels like the quietest build to a football season in a long time.
Is that all bad? There’s little good in the wearing down process of a decade-long decline. But perhaps there’s something healthy to be found not in lower expectations, but more reasonable ones.
Consider: what is 7-5 worth in 2019?
That’s Tennessee’s over/under in Vegas. If the Vols hit that mark, it would obviously be progress from 4-8 and 5-7 the last two years. But it would also represent more progress than either of Jeremy Pruitt’s two predecessors achieved in their second year.
The proverbial year two bump has been a part of our vernacular since Urban Meyer showed up at Florida. The last two times we’ve had a chance to see it? Well…
2011: Burn bright, burn fast, wait now we’re on fire
Among the “Tennessee’s Back!” False Alarm Hall of Fame – 2009 Georgia, 2013 South Carolina, the first six weeks of 2016 – few felt more promising than 2011 Cincinnati. With a nod to this year’s BYU matchup in week two, the Bearcats and their future-Vol head coach came to Knoxville in week two eight years ago. Derek Dooley’s Vols were coming off a 6-7 year
zero one, 8-5 in games decided when the clock originally hit zero.
The numbers from that game are still eye-opening. Tyler Bray went 34-of-41 (82.9%!) for 405 yards, becoming the first non-Manning to throw for 400+ at Tennessee. Bray fired four touchdowns, zero interceptions. Da’Rick Rogers and Justin Hunter each caught 10+ passes for 100+ yards. The Vols went 10-of-13 on third down and punted once in a 45-23 win.
You don’t prove anything at Tennessee by beating Cincinnati (or BYU), but it felt like the prologue to the great story the Vols would write at Florida seven days later. And then Justin Hunter tore his ACL on the opening drive, and Tyler Bray broke his thumb against Georgia two games later. Injuries broke the Vols early, Kentucky buried them late, and Derek Dooley’s second season ended at 5-7. Before 2017, it might have been the least competitive season of my lifetime.
2014: It was supposed to be you.
Butch Jones didn’t follow the script perfectly leading into year two, thanks to a last-second loss to Vanderbilt that denied the Vols bowl eligibility in year one. But he did get the signature win that eluded Derek Dooley’s entire tenure, and was a fumble in overtime away from an even bigger win. More than anything, his recruiting classes – the ones coming in to play that August, and the ones who would arrive at February – made it feel like Tennessee’s return was inevitable.
And year two opened on schedule. The Vols faced pesky mid-majors from Utah State and Arkansas State to open, but handled both 38-7 and 34-19. At #4 Oklahoma in primetime, Justin Worley threw a pair of end zone interceptions in the second half, the latter returned 100 yards for a touchdown, making a 34-10 loss to the Sooners feel much more respectable. Then the Vols almost beat Georgia again, falling 35-32 thanks to a pair of second half fumbles, one in the Bulldog red zone and the other in Tennessee’s own end zone.
But all was well: the Vols were coming back to Knoxville, and a Gator team that lost its last seven games of 2013, needed three overtimes to beat Kentucky, and just fell by 21 to Alabama was teetering. Will Muschamp was on life support. The Vols would ascend. The moment was here.
For everything else that would happen during Butch Jones’ tenure – the multi-faceted heartbreak of 2015, 2016, and the total collapse in 2017 – this moment in 2014 remains one of the biggest missed opportunities. It’s a nice day outside, you don’t need me to rehash this game. The Vols lost 10-9. The neat and tidy narrative we’d been constructing for ourselves fell apart, almost entirely by our own hand.
Josh Dobbs saved the season a few weeks later. The Vols finished 6-6 and, thanks to a hungry fanbase eager for its first bowl game in four years, pole-vaulted their way to January 1 in the Taxslayer Bowl, decimated Iowa, and we set ourselves up for hope again. But all of that came after the story we thought we were getting – the story we thought we should get – fell apart.
2019: What’s the story now?
Hitting the Vegas number from four months away doesn’t feel like cause for celebration. If there’s magic to be had in year two, that would look more like 9-3. Keep in mind, the Vols haven’t had a 9-3 regular season since 2007, and haven’t finished an entire year with less than four losses since 2004. That’s fifteen years.
But if we can set magic to the side and just focus on progress, if the Vols do go 7-5 this fall? Jeremy Pruitt will be off to a better start than Derek Dooley and Butch Jones, despite digging out of a deeper hole post-2017. It’s not sexy, but it is noteworthy.
Be careful when falling in love with preseason projections from S&P+ and FPI. The Vols are 21st in the former and 15th in the latter. That’s great! But when both of those rating systems release their predicted win totals? S&P+ will probably have the Vols around 7-5; FPI might think about 8-4 but not by much. It’s not just where you’re ranked, it’s how many teams on your schedule are ranked ahead of you. In S&P+ that number is six, including four in the Top 10. In FPI it’s three, with Mississippi State, South Carolina, and Missouri right behind the Vols at 16, 19, and 20.
The closer you get to August, the more noise football will create. That part will always be true around here. But perhaps the relative quiet of this off-season and the length of our time in the wilderness will create a greater appreciation, even if just a little, of what just hitting the Vegas expectation might be worth this fall.