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Tennessee Football: What We Can Be

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Looking back on Team 119 with equal doses of heartbreak and hope.

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Here are the images that should be burned into the heart and mind of Tennessee football for the next nine months:

I hate this clip.  But we need it.

Tennessee needs not just to remember, but to know.  If either of these two plays or a host of others go differently, right now you're reading a preview of the SEC Championship Game.  Right now we're talking about a rematch with Alabama, and one we very much believe we can win.  Right now we're talking about Tennessee winning championships because we answered whether or not the Vols were "back" months ago.

We've spent some time this season discussing what it actually means to be "back", most notably after almost beating the Tide in October.  A realistic expectation of victory has returned, cemented by a five game winning streak against lesser foes to further the idea that the Vols are a good team with a front-loaded schedule.

How good?  Tennessee's +8.4 scoring differential in SEC play is better than anyone not playing in Atlanta on Saturday.  Here's the full season chart for SEC scoring differential since expansion, which shows how much more competitive the league is getting:

RANK 2012 DIF 2013 DIF 2014 DIF 2015 DIF
1 BAMA 26.6 BAMA 23.5 UGA 14.4 BAMA 14.1
2 A&M 18.1 MIZ 16.7 BAMA 14.0 FLA 10.1
3 UGA 15.3 SCAR 9.4 MSU 11.2 VOLS 8.4
4 FLA 14.0 AUB 7.9 MISS 8.4 MISS 6.0
5 SCAR 7.5 LSU 7.4 MIZ 4.7 ARK 4.3
6 LSU 3.7 UGA 4.8 AUB 1.6 UGA 3.0
7 VAN 1.1 A&M 1.9 FLA -0.9 LSU 1.8
8 MISS -1.9 FLA -0.5 ARK -1.5 MSU 0.3
9 MSU -2.6 VAN -3.5 LSU -1.6 A&M -1.8
10 VOLS -9.3 MISS -5.0 VOLS -1.6 AUB -6.5
11 MIZ -11.1 MSU -7.3 SCAR -2.8 MIZ -9.5
12 ARK -12.5 VOLS -12.6 A&M -8.7 VAN -9.8
13 AUB -23.9 ARK -21.0 UK -14.6 UK -10.2
14 UK -25.2 UK -21.6 VAN -22.6 SCAR -10.3

Not only is Tennessee's +8.4 third best in the league this year, it is the highest scoring differential the Vols have posted in league play since 2003.

Fans love wins and losses, and rightfully so.  "Scoreboard!" is this game's ultimate measuring stick.  But if we look closer at that scoreboard, we may find something interesting about this team compared to its recent predecessors, and something its coaches have been saying all year.

Wins and losses speak truth.  Scoring differential speaks facts.  As most of us are men and women with hearts and gut feelings and not just robots with cold data, we will continue to rightfully value truth over fact.  That's what makes sports great.

But by comparison, here's what the Vols have done in scoring differential in their other recent 8+ win seasons:

  • 2007:  The ultimate example of why wins are always worth more, the 2007 East Champions were actually outscored in SEC play 246 to 243 (-0.375 per game) thanks to a pair of blowouts against our two biggest rivals.  The '07 Vols lost to Florida by 39 and Alabama by 24 but beat Georgia and Arkansas by 21.  On paper this was an average team.  In reality they won a title and, I would continue to argue, should be fully celebrated.
  • 2006:  Tennessee was +6.3 in scoring differential, losing to eventual BCS champion Florida and #13 LSU by a combined five points before falling by 17 at #11 Arkansas, the latter two without starting quarterback Erik Ainge.  These Vols also rallied from down 17 to beat Georgia by 18 in Athens.  As frequently noted, this team was almost certainly better than the one that followed, but gets remembered less fondly because they failed to reach Atlanta.
  • 2004:  The year of living dangerously, as will always be the case playing true freshmen at quarterback:  the Vols went 7-1 in the SEC but finished with a scoring differential of just +2.  The undefeated Auburn juggernaut beat the Vols by 24, and Tennessee got six of its seven SEC wins by six points or less.  But it was enough to win the East in one of Fulmer's better coaching jobs.
These 8-4 Vols earned much of their +8.4 scoring differential by blasting Kentucky and Vanderbilt.  But they also earned it by going down to the wire with Alabama, Florida, and Arkansas, avoiding any loss of more than five points in league play.  Tennessee's risk management strategy shows up clearly here as well.  The Vols certainly had an advantage playing in the SEC East this year, but what they did against Alabama and Oklahoma more than handles this issue.

As a team that didn't win a championship there is a ceiling on how well the 2015 Vols will be remembered.  And those plays against Florida make the difference here as well.  But in the long run, the defining image of Team 119 doesn't have to be disappointment.  It is, in part, already one of Butch Jones' favorite words:  resiliency.

But just as Team 118 made an important step of progress for the program, so too can Team 119.  These Vols can be a key link in the chain from good to great.  And we've already seen how narrow the distance can be.  This team did their job in moving the program forward.  And they almost did a lot more.

So for the next nine months, Tennessee will remember.  How close they were.  How much it hurt.  What should have been.  But this team should also know exactly how good it can be.  You can call it back or close or whatever you want.  But Team 119 has earned championship expectations for Team 120, expectations they themselves came oh so close to fulfilling.  Through heartbreak and resiliency, the past can fuel the future.  And there's one game left in the present to help bridge the gap.