Let's start this conversation by reminding ourselves that no one is casting the upcoming 2009 season aside, that we still shy away from words like "rebuilding" until we can use them in hindsight, and that the closer it gets to September (now under 100 days) the more we'll trade realism for optimism - if the Vols start 2-0, I guarantee a "We Can Beat Florida" post from yours truly.
But while it's still May and we haven't gone completely off the deep end yet, and as we're in the last few months of this surreal period where we love Lane Kiffin and the Super Staff but they haven't won/lost a game yet, let's take a look at where all of this is pointing for the new guys in town.
The standard for new coaches in today's SEC is three years. There's no real tenure system in a league that just saw two coaches with undefeated seasons on their resumes get the boot, so as we'll see you can't say that if a coach makes it three years he's going to be just fine. But 99% of the time in the SEC, three years is the end of the evaluation period for a new staff - after three seasons, you either fish or cut bait.
Now let's again point out a stat that needs to be repeatedly uttered between now and December: in the modern SEC (since 1992), no one has ever come in as a new head coach from outside the program and won a championship of any kind (national, conference or division) in their first season. Some coaches have bucked the three year rule with incredible success in their second season: Urban Meyer won a National Championship in his second season at Florida, and Mark Richt's 2002 Georgia team went 13-1 in his second year. Last year Nick Saban's second Alabama team started 12-0, finding similar success to his second season at LSU, where the Tigers upset the Vols to win the 2001 SEC Championship at 10-3.
Without that level of early success, the third season becomes the fulcrum for a new head coach. At Alabama, both Mike DuBose and Mike Shula entered their third seasons with the jury still out and the fanbase restless, but both delivered: DuBose won the SEC Championship in 1999, and Shula's 2005 team went 10-2. Proving that third year success doesn't guarantee anything more than continued opportunity, both led Alabama to incredibly disappointing seasons in year four, and neither was retained; Shula signed a six year extension after the 2005 season only to be terminated after going 6-6 in 2006.
It should be noted that in Phillip Fulmer's third season, the Vols rebounded from an 8-4 1994 to go 11-1 and finish #2 in 1995.
Sometimes, it just never gets off the ground, and if there's no resurrection after three years the whole thing falls apart (Ed Orgeron at Ole Miss). Sometimes, the team doesn't really fall apart but never really competes for championships either, and after three years of average the program looks elsewhere (Ron Zook at Florida, who went 8-5, 8-5, 7-4).
Regardless of the level of success, new coaches in the SEC get three years to make good progress and a lasting impression. If they do, they get to stay in college football's most volatile conference for at least year four (and hopefully continue to build on their established goodwill). If they don't, they go walking out the door richer men than when they entered, but unemployed all the same.
So in Tennessee's situation, if the tipping point is 2011, it would appear that the talent in Knoxville (or the talent that will be in Knoxville by then) lines itself up nicely to fit that model. Examining this model is both a plea for patience and realism - and of course, we don't know what's going to happen in the next three years, so we'll try and examine the best and worst case scenarios between now and then. But either way, all the history and all the signs point to Lane Kiffin needing to tip the scales in his favor by the end of the 2011 season. Here's how the Vols line up to do that...
Anything is possible in sports, and Vol fans should know that lesson well after experiencing the difference in Tennessee Basketball under Bruce Pearl's leadership. It wasn't just that Pearl resurrected the program, it was that he did it immediately, taking a team that lost their two best scorers from a losing record to a 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament in his first season.
Lane Kiffin works to instill confidence in the program and in the current roster, and so yeah, it's possible the 2009 Vols surprise people and have an amazing season. But Kiffin is in it for more than one season, and therefore the overall direction of the program must be taken into account. How does the program get from here to the tipping point?
The Realistic Best Case Scenario
On paper, there are only two games you can point at for the '09 Vols and say they'll be definitive underdogs: at Florida and at Alabama. While no one would enjoy getting beat by the program's two biggest rivals, those are really the only two teams who have a definitive talent advantage on Tennessee. Yes, there's a date with Ole Miss in Oxford, but that game is in mid-November, and by then all of our preseason predictions will have been completely forgotten, right?
So if we count the Vols as obvious underdogs against the Tide and the Gators and say the jury is still out on a mid-November contest with Ole Miss, that's two losses. Who else on the schedule is so much better than Tennessee that we'd definitively give them the edge right now? I say no one.
Now in real life, this doesn't mean I expect the Vols to run the rest of the table. I'm just saying there are no other teams out there on the schedule I'd point at and say "You know, they're just so much better than us." So in the best case scenario, let's say the Vols win all of those other games. Let's say they pull it out against a Georgia team without Stafford and Moreno in Knoxville, and by the time they go to Oxford Ole Miss's season has already fallen apart. They dodge upset bullets and grind out wins against UCLA, Auburn and South Carolina. It isn't always pretty, but behind Eric Berry's 17 interceptions and second place finish in the Heisman voting, the Vols go 10-2. They score an at-large bid to the BCS thanks to their fiery young coach, marketability and the number one pick in the 2010 Draft, and play in the Sugar Bowl against a mid-major team they're able to completely shut down thanks to their defense, and unbelievably finish 11-2. Lane Kiffin runs for Mayor and wins.
Here's the point: no matter how good it could possibly get in 2009 - and we all want it to be incredible, we all want to buy in to the confidence that Kiffin is selling - the Vols are still going to be faced with these obstacles in 2010:
- A true freshman starting at quarterback
- Four new starters on the offensive line
- The loss of the three best defensive players (Eric Berry, Rico McCoy, Dan Williams)
- A schedule that trades UCLA for Oregon and Auburn in Knoxville for LSU in Baton Rouge
Remember when Bruce Pearl said it would be like having two first seasons? Lane Kiffin would be wise to emmulate. Playing with whatever freshman we can sign behind an offensive line of five mystery men against a much more difficult schedule, even if the Vols manage 10 wins in 2009, it would be an even more impressive feat to duplicate it in 2010.
Even under the best case scenario, if Kiffin wants to get the Vols back to competing for championships every single season, the way the roster and the quarterback situation breaks it's just going to take until 2011, in all probability, for the Vols to get there on a consistent basis. Even under the best case scenario, 2011 would be the first year Kiffin would have a shot to put his players, familiar with his system, in the best possible opportunity to succeed on a championship level. For Tennessee to consistently "be Tennessee" again, it's going to take at least three years. Best case scenario, by 2011 we're National Championship contenders again.
The Realistic Worst Case Scenario
Jonathan Crompton is every bit as bad as he was last year, and Nick Stephens provides the same uneven support. No playmakers emerge at receiver, defenses stack the line and overwhelm an offensive line that struggles with zone blocking execution. The Vols get murdered by Florida, lose to Georgia and then get pounded by Alabama. Ole Miss is every bit as good as advertised, and they lay it on extra thick just for Coach O. The offense can't score any points and Eric Berry just isn't as opportunistic. Close games against UCLA, Auburn, South Carolina are all struggles. Tennessee finishes under .500 again and misses a bowl game for the second straight year.
Now, if this happens, you know who gets most of the blame? That's right, Phillip Fulmer. Everyone will find different ways to say that the talent in Knoxville clearly is not what it used to be, Fulmer takes the blame for that, and Kiffin gets his year of grace.
If this happens, those 2010 issues are still going to present themselves. If we really are so far removed on a talent basis from the rest of the conference, it's going to take more than one year to get that turned around. If 2009 goes this poorly, there will be little evidence to suggest that 2010 is going to be that much better.
If the Vols go 5-7 and then 5-7 in 2010, or really any combination of two five, six or seven win seasons, 2011 becomes the final opportunity for Kiffin to get it moving in the right direction. Worst case scenario, in 2011 either the Vols make significant progress, or the Vols move on.
The Most Realistic Scenario
The Vols are uneven but do improve over the course of the 2009 season and finish 7-5/8-4. That means they will have won at least two "big games" (UCLA, Florida, Auburn, Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, Ole Miss), something Fulmer and the '08 Vols never did to stop the season from snowballing. Tennessee plays in a bowl game.
The 2010 issues are still present, but the Vols sign a five star quarterback and Lane Kiffin and the staff continue to display elite recruiting skills. Tennessee struggles with a new quarterback and a shoddy offensive line that slows everything down in 2010, but the Vols again win a few important games and have another 7-5/8-4 finish, playing in another bowl game.
Two 8-4 seasons would be acceptable to begin, but keep in mind it was going 8-4 that got Fulmer in trouble to begin with. By 2011, Tennessee fans are going to be hungry for more, and Kiffin will have two full recruiting classes of his players under his system. If this happens, then realistically 2011 becomes the year where Kiffin has to do more than be average. Tennessee has three years to get back to the nation's elite under Kiffin, or else the tipping point will swing to the negative.
There are plenty of other questions in this three year window. Exactly how long is Monte Kiffin going to keep coaching? If things go really really well, how long before someone else hires Ed Orgeron? We know these guys can recruit, but can they coach these kids up?
The schedule in 2011 will break a bit easier. The SEC West rotation brings LSU to Knoxville and will send the Vols to Fayetteville. The big non-conference test will be at North Carolina. Of course, it's impossible to figure out where all of this is going for all the other teams on the schedule, but right now it appears much easier than what the Vols will face in 2010.
No matter what happens this year, things point to a similar "rebuilding" project next season with a new quarterback and more growing pains. But no matter how good or had bad it gets between now and 2011, that will be the season that makes the biggest difference for Lane Kiffin. Whether he wins a National Championship, breaks the cycle of mediocrity, puts the Vols back on the national map, or proves that he really can't get it done on the field, 2011 will be the tipping point. Kiffin has three years to get us on the right side of it. And that foundation will be built, brick by brick, starting in 96 days.