When you consider how far the Tennessee football program has sunk in the last decade it appears that any good news out of Knoxville is greeted by skepticism. For example, when linebacker Darren Kirkland announced he was leaving, fans reacted with an "Oh well" type attitude. In other words, it couldn't get any worse. A few weeks later when Kirkland changed his mind and decided to return to the Vols for 2018, fans reacted with another "Oh well" attitude because Kirkland has been hampered by injuries since he first came to Tennessee. Though most of those same Big Orange fans seem to be sold on new head coach Jeremy Pruitt, there is little to indicate things will get better anytime soon.
There are a few fans who expect Tennessee to compete for an SEC Championship right away.
That's not going to happen. The Vols will be very lucky to finish 6-6 and go to a bowl game which would be definite progress. In terms of actually competing for an SEC title, the Volunteers are at least 3-4 years away.
How has it gotten this bad? When Phillip Fulmer was fired in 2008 the program had definitely declined but was only one or two recruiting classes away from being able to return to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game-the same one they played in in 2007. The Vols were still respected on a national level but when Lane Kiffin was hired to replace Fulmer, things just didn't feel right. That was proven when Kiffin bolted for Southern Cal after just one season. Then came Derek Dooley who brought the Vols down to an entirely different level in terms of talent and national respect. Instead of signing four and five star recruiits Dooley signed much less talented players and that led to the Vols three straight 5-7 seasons. The first two under Dooley and the last one under Butch Jones. Jones brought the Vols fan base together with good recruiting classes and perhaps smoke and mirrors. While Jones seemed to recruit well, he and his staff were not able to develop talent at all. Plus, that "Champions of Life" slogan went over like a lead balloon.
To show you how far the Vols' program has gone down, when Jones was fired, the search for a new coach made Tennessee the laughing stock of college sports. It led to the ouster of Athletic Director John Currie after only eight months and eventually led to the firing of U.T. Chancellor Dr. Beverly Davenport a few months later. Now, as we approach the start of the 2018 college football season, the Vols are coming off their only winless SEC season in school history and the school's worst record ever; a 4-8 debacle a year ago.
That's where Tennessee is as a program, trying to bounce back from the bottom of the SEC pile. That's a place Tennessee has never been as a football program but it's the place where Jeremy Pruitt begins his tenure as the Vols' head coach. So, you see how unrealistic it is to think Tennessee will be relevant in the SEC right away. This may seem to be a pessimistic view of things but I prefer to think of it as a real assessment.
Had the Volunteers not fired Coach Fulmer, I firmly believe Tennessee would not be in this shape today. But they did and as we get close to beginning the 2018 season the fact that Fulmer is now in charge of things as Athletic Director can only be a positive thing. Tennessee has a long way to go because the Volunteers have never been in this position before. They honestly can't go any lower, so the only way to go is up. And that's not going to happen overnight.
Randy Smith can be reached at email@example.com