The Tennessee Volunteers have been in a strange position for the last decade. What most Vol fans perceived to be "normal" has been turned upside down on its head ever since the 2007 season, the last time the Vols were truly relevant in a national perspective. Since then, the Vols have endured losing streaks to Vanderbilt, South Carolina, and a baffling loss to Kentucky in the midst of one of the worst stretches of Tennessee Volunteer history.
Vol fans realize just how bad it got for Tennessee. The Dooley era was terrible, and it was set off by the brief and destructive Lane Kiffin era that preceded it. Vol fans are well aware of the dark depths the Vols plummeted to in the early 2010's. Outside the fan base, however, the disappearance of the Vols may not have been largely noticed. But for those of you who don't realize how much the Vols dropped off after 2007, here's some information:
From 2008-2013, the Vols lost to their three biggest rivals, Florida, Alabama, and Georgia, every year during that span except for a lone victory over Georgia in 2009. The Vols were outscored 584-314 by those three teams in that 6 year span. The Vols had a losing record (2-4) against South Carolina during that period, and the 2013 win was an upset because of how far the Vols had dropped off. Tennessee lost two straight games to Vanderbilt, a team the Vols had beaten 22 straight years from 1983-2004. Then there's the 10-7 loss to Kentucky in 2011 at the hands of a wide receiver playing quarterback that snapped the Vols' 26-game winning streak over the Wildcats. Not only had the Vols become easy wins to their biggest rivals, but they allowed weaker SEC teams to surpass them as well.
The Tennessee Volunteers, a team with 50 total bowl game appearances as of 2015, failed to make it to a bowl game in 4 of the 6 seasons between 2008-13. That's how low the Vols had fallen.
But 2014 and 2015 have seen a righting of the ship. Last season the Vols continued losing streaks to their three major rivals, but the margin of defeat was a mere 18 points between the three losses. Tennessee extended its winning streak against South Carolina to two games after an overtime thriller, dominated Kentucky just like old times, and edged out Vanderbilt to end that losing streak. And this season, despite the manner in which the Vols lost early games, has seen even more improvement. The Vols lost by a combined 6 points to Florida and Alabama and finally defeated Georgia for the first time since 2009. Then Tennessee routed Kentucky last weekend in an even more one-sided game than last season's blowout.
For most of this season, Vol fans have been given the message of "seeing improvement despite losses." And while there's certainly merit and truth to that argument, it did noting to quell the frustration of Vol fans having to deal with painful losses. But now Vol fans can finally see improvement in wins, and it's the return to normalcy that should give fans hope.
The Vols have crushed Kentucky in back-to-back seasons and now hold a four-game winning streak over them that looks like it will only continue to grow. Tennessee has surpassed Vanderbilt again and should hopefully never be close to on par with them ever again. And the Vols have defeated South Carolina in dramatic fashion the last two seasons and look like they're on the verge of a dominating victory this weekend. South Carolina has the worst run defense in the SEC and is ranked 12th and 13th in points allowed and total defense respectively. The Vols, meanwhile, have the 2nd-best rushing attack in the SEC behind only LSU and are ranked 3rd in points per game in the league.
It's taken a few years, but the Vols finally look poised to reestablish their dominance over the teams they owned in the 1990's and early 2000's. It's a step in the right direction for a team in desperate need of a turnaround and positive momentum, and it's a sign that things are finally, hopefully, on the upswing.
Next for the Vols is to win the close games against the likes of Florida and Alabama over the next couple seasons. But for now, putting lower-tier SEC teams back in their place is a definite improvement.