Preview 2017: Maybe, Tennessee Is Just Okay
After so many expectations and so much hope, maybe this is just what Tennessee is.
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Maybe this is just what Tennessee is.
The program had its chance to turn the corner last season, and while winning nine games wasn’t bad, there wasn’t an appearance in the SEC Championship, and it wasn’t the dominant campaign it should’ve been.
But that appears to be Tennessee football now. Butch Jones keeps recruiting well enough, and his teams always look the part of something that should be doing big things – and then they just don’t.
Two straight 9-4 seasons are okay, though. Considering the Vols went seven straight years without coming up with more than seven victories, maybe it’s unfair to think a nine-win campaign is truly a disappointment.
But it was.
2016 was supposed to be the culmination of the rebuild. It was the fourth year under Jones after logging in enough time to make the program all his, the SEC East continued to be underwhelming – look, if Kentucky is a player, the division is down – but the Vols were never right from the start.
If it’s your season to do something special, you shouldn’t have needed a minor miracle to get by Appalachian State in overtime, or struggle against Ohio. But that was last year.
There’s still a ton of talent returning, and the East is still just okay and very, very winnable. So maybe it’s time to blow off the idea that the Vols will ever be dominant under Jones, and just accept that being above-average is the new norm.
After thinking for several years that the big season is coming to turn the corner and become the 1990s killer again, maybe Tennessee gets thrown into the former superpower pile of Nebraska, Texas, Miami and Notre Dame, who have become more about brand name than championships.
And maybe, just maybe, Tennessee will one day rise up again and shock everyone by being really, really good.
The Vols will always have an Alabama problem – that’s the interdivisional tie-in on the schedule – but that doesn’t mean they can’t beat Georgia and South Carolina at home, and even finally get by Florida on the road again for the first time in forever.
Tennessee, at least be in the East title chase until the end, and if you need to beat Vanderbilt in the regular season finale to play for the SEC Championship, you’d better do it.
There’s no Joshua Dobbs at quarterback, but Quinten Dormady appears ready to crank up the passing game if the young receivers can step up and shine.
John Kelly showed last season he’s ready to become an SEC star running back, with the underclassmen needing to help him out. The O line will be good enough to pound away for the group of speed backs – if it can stay in one piece.
Injury issues go for the defensive front, too. There has to be a pass rush coming from the outside without Derek Barnett around, while the tackles need to be as good as advertised out of the prep ranks to help out a woeful run defense.
The bangs and bruises last year in the back seven meant plenty of players got time to see meaningful action, and now the Vols have a relatively loaded group of safeties and a solid linebacking corps.
It all adds up to another okay team. It’ll have its moments in the SEC East race, and it’ll come up with a few big wins to stay alive and be a factor, but is that it? Can Jones finally show he’s ready to take the team to another level?
Compared to last year, the pressure is off. Everyone will be touting Florida after winning two straight East titles, and Georgia will the darling in Year Two under Kirby Smart, but Tennessee is right there. Like before last season, there’s still no real excuse to not be the SEC East champion.
Unless, that’s just not Tennessee now. Some programs have it when it comes to winning big things, and some don’t. Considering the last SEC championship was 1998, and the last appearance in the conference title game was 2007, Tennessee is currently among those that don’t.
One big season can change that.