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The Fragile Final Steps

Tennessee has reached consistent competitiveness with elite opponents. On where it goes from here, how quickly, and how perilously.

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The hardest work of a rebuild comes in the beginning, in the turnaround.  Win back the high school relationships.  Convince 17 year old kids your losing program can win again.  Change the mentality of a beaten fanbase.  Create interest in ways other than the wins that simply can't come at the start.  Survive talent disparities and a few blowouts to become competitive again.

In two years, Butch Jones has fought and won all of those battles.  It's a story more incredible than any of us give it credit for because we're all waiting on the final steps, the wins and the rankings and the championships, to validate the process.  But in some ways, the hardest work has already been done.  It's the sort of thing, x years from now if/when Butch Jones is wearing a ring, that can be told in full with dramatic music and black and white video of Derek Dooley, with stories from current assistants about just how much ground they had to make up.  Stories they couldn't tell before because they didn't want to seem disrespectful or like they were making excuses even if they were just being honest.

The process requires patience, and we've given it.  But Butch's insistence on being ahead of schedule has left us with a Top 5 recruiting class in 2014, a Top 5 committed class for 2015, and a win over an eventual Top 5 opponent last year.  And Saturday to Saturday, even more important than all of that is Tennessee's ability to walk onto the field - any field - and have a real chance to win.

At the beginning of this season we believed that would be the best way to measure progress:  not by wins and losses but by margin of defeat.  Last year the Vols played five teams who finished in the Top 10 and beat South Carolina, but lost to Oregon 59-14, Alabama 45-10, Missouri 31-3, and Auburn 55-23.  This year the Vols went on the road at a pair of Top 10 contenders.  The Oklahoma game ended 34-10 with a pair of end zone interceptions in the second half.  And what we just saw in Athens validates this team's competitiveness, a game Tennessee, more than anything, fumbled away.

So this is where we are now:  no more moral victories.  Butch has never claimed them.  But I know after Oklahoma, the fanbase was unanimous in approval of the effort.  And after Georgia, we hurt again in all the right ways, losing a game we could have/should have won on the road against a good team.  And again, unanimous in approval of the effort.

So as the schedule now moves away from Norman and Athens into much more manageable territory, Tennessee enters that place where fans can expect to compete every week again.  The only possible exception is Alabama, any thought of a moral victory against the Tide died the day they hired Lane Kiffin.

Fans will now believe Tennessee is going to have a real chance to win every Saturday. It's ahead of schedule, but it's not idiot optimism.  It's what Butch Jones and Team 118 have given you every reason to believe.  It's such a simple statement, but was blissfully taken for granted for so long around here, it's nice to have it back.

The hardest work of the rebuild is behind.  But these next steps, the final steps between competitiveness and championships?  These steps are very dangerous.

One, because the expectation of competitiveness will quickly become the expectation of victory.  We're about one really good win away from that, and as such when the Vols don't win - and they almost certainly won't win the rest of their games this year - we can quickly fall back into impatience.  Perhaps impatience is woven into the DNA of top-tier football programs.  But the last six years have been an exceptional lesson in not taking anything for granted.  Every step, every win should be celebrated.

But two, and much more pressing for this team, is that the final step of any rebuild is depth.  And right now, as good as the Vols can be every Saturday, they are one play away from being a very different football team at a number of positions.

We saw it Saturday with Justin Worley and Nathan Peterman, where the gap between the first and second team is not just the difference between winning and losing, but could be the difference between being competitive and playing for next year.

Tennessee has quality depth at wide receiver, tight end, and, if Marlin Lane is 100%, running back.  The Vols have quantity depth at defensive end and in the secondary, where there are now proven starters with lots of names and stars on the depth chart behind them, but much of that is still unproven.  And even if the stars aren't coming until 2015 at defensive tackle, Tennessee has built depth with veterans raising their ceiling and guys like Owen Williams contributing right away.

But everywhere else, it is absolutely critical to the success of this team that the Vols stay healthy.

The offensive line issues are well-documented, but if so much of it is inexperience in the starting lineup, there's only more of that coming if one of those guys goes down again.  Any progress Tennessee makes up front could be jeopardized if an injury takes one of those five guys out of the rotation.

It is a much more glaring issue at linebacker and quarterback.

Justin Worley and A.J. Johnson aren't Tennessee's two best NFL prospects, but they are the team's two senior leaders.  Behind Justin Worley is Joshua Dobbs' redshirt and Nathan Peterman, who has played three quarters of meaningful action and is 8 of 20 for 25 yards with two interceptions and a fumble.  No matter what you might have believed a month ago, the reality now is the greatest key for Tennessee's continued success in 2014 is the health of Justin Worley. Given our issues with the offensive line, this makes everyone involved uncomfortable.

A.J. Johnson leads the SEC in tackles per game with 11.5.  Jalen Reeves-Maybin is third at 8.75.  Curt Maggitt certainly has experience at outside linebacker and is featured there when the Vols show a 4-3 look.  He is seventh on the team in tackles.

Behind those three, Tennessee's leading tacklers at linebacker?  Dillon Bates with six, and he's now out for the year.  Then it's Cortez McDowell with five, and I think most if not all of those have come on special teams.  Chris Weatherd has been used almost exclusively on third down for what as a pass rusher only.

The Vols might have the best first-team linebacking corps in the SEC.  But with Bates on the shelf, who's the backup for any of them?  The depth chart for Georgia listed Colton Jumper as the second team MLB.  He has zero tackles.  Tennessee had 65 tackles for loss last year.  This year, against four thought-to-be-lively offenses, the Vols have 30 in four games.  Who leads?  JRM has six, A.J. and Curt both have 3.5.  Where would our defense be without any one of them?  Do these guys even come out of the game?

The machine is working, more four and five stars are coming.  But in the space between, the Vols' ability to win now is very much alive, but really fragile.  Any team needs to keep its best players healthy.  But right now, the Vols could more likely survive the loss of a Cam Sutton or Marquez North than they could Justin Worley or any linebacker.

So we arrive at the Gators with so much ground already covered for Butch Jones, and the most fun parts still yet to come.  This is the part where you hope the roller coaster doesn't break down at the top of the hill.

Either way, hold on tight.