As Dave Serrano's fourth season as Tennessee's baseball coach was coming to a disappointing end, the head coach was asked if his preseason expectations of Omaha negatively affected a young team which had yet to play in even a single NCAA Tournament game. Serrano's answer was a bit of both, but the question itself created instant comparisons to the conversation surrounding Team 119 right now.
Tennessee was 7-6 last year, is 12-13 in Butch Jones' first two years, and 40-47 in the last seven seasons. Tennessee is also projected to open the year in the Top 25, and by Vegas' standards has the second best odds to win the division and the league title among their SEC East brethren.
The SEC East is a favorite goal for this team, still too young to be taken seriously for the playoff. But in a year when Georgia feels like the favorite by default and every team has significant imperfections, having youth itself as your biggest question mark isn't the worst thing in the world.
And it's not really youth, it's inexperience making big games count. Tennessee's celebrated freshmen-now-sophomores still only own memorable wins over unranked foes from South Carolina and Iowa. And Tennessee's celebrated junior quarterback wasn't on the field for 2013's big ranked win over those same Gamecocks. The next nationally significant game all of them win will be their first.
So, is it realistic and/or healthy to place SEC East title expectations on these Vols? Can we even put a team that went 7-6 last year in that conversation?
Recent history says, "Absolutely."
Here are your SEC Eastern Division champions, their record heading to Atlanta, and their record the year before:
Season-to-season turnarounds are happening more frequently these days. Some of it has to do with the overall parity of the SEC; for instance, a recognized rebuilding year for Tennessee looked like 8-4 in 2000, and enabled the Vols to bounce right back to the SEC East title the following season. If you have to rebuild in today's SEC, odds are you're not winning eight games.
But in recent years, if you're at or around .500 one season, you don't always have to wait through multiple others to get back to Atlanta.
In 2010 South Carolina became the first team to win the SEC East with a 5-3 mark in conference play since the division's first year in 1992. The Gamecocks navigated their way to the Georgia Dome by having two of those three losses come to SEC West foes, something to watch for again this season. The year before South Carolina went 7-6 and only one of their losses was by one possession; this included a 2-5 finish and a loss to UConn in the PapaJohns.com Bowl.
While Carolina was marching to Atlanta, Georgia went through their own rebuilding process and stumbled to a 1-4 start while A.J. Green served a four game suspension. The Dawgs finished 6-7 in 2010, with four losses by one possession, no wins over ranked teams, and a loss to Central Florida in the Liberty Bowl. The next year they started 0-2 before winning ten straight games to capture the SEC East crown.
A key component for both South Carolina in 2010 and Georgia in 2011: their rivals were rebuilding. In 2010 Florida entered the season ranked fourth in the AP poll, but quickly tumbled in Urban Meyer's final season in Gainesville. The only other SEC East team ranked at the start of the season was Georgia at #23, who as mentioned started 1-4. Tennessee was in the first year of Derek Dooley's tenure, and recently feisty Kentucky had just turned things over to Joker Phillips. The following season saw Georgia win during Will Muschamp's first season in Gainesville, while Tennessee continued to struggle under the weight of the Kiffin-Dooley transition. In this thing you take all the help you can get.
The most notable example is Missouri in 2013. The Tigers went 5-7 in their first year in the SEC in 2012, decimated by injury while also catching a particularly brutal draw from the SEC West in facing #1 Alabama and #9 Texas A&M. Only three of their losses were by one possession.
But in 2013 they flat out dominated the Eastern Division. Their start may have been a little bumpy, playing closer than expected games against Toledo and Indiana in the non-conference. But then they worked the rest of the schedule over: en route to 11-1 they beat everyone by at least two touchdowns until the regular season finale, a 28-21 win over #19 Texas A&M. Their only regular season loss came via dubious kicking in double overtime against #20 South Carolina. Missouri's turnaround from 2012 to 2013 was not just six more games in the win column, it was a change of nearly 20 points per game in scoring differential. This is what can happen when a young team gets healthy and grows up at the same time.
Could the same thing happen for Tennessee this fall? The Vols (and the rest of the East) catch Florida in a rebuilding year. Oklahoma and Ole Miss were able to run away from the Vols late and Alabama did the same early, but UT's other three losses last year were all by one possession. While only twice in 23 years has 5-3 in league play been good enough to get to Atlanta, only three times has the East's champion come to the Georgia Dome undefeated. 6-2 in conference play can get to Atlanta if it's the right six and the right two. 9-3 overall would be a successful season for the Vols regardless, but there's an important difference in going 9-3 with losses to Alabama, Georgia, and Missouri, and going 9-3 with losses to Alabama, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. The former would almost certainly send Tennessee to another nice bowl game. But the latter could send the Vols to the SEC Championship Game.
Many will make Oklahoma out to be one of the season's most important games for momentum and statement purposes, and it will feel very much like it in the moment. But at the end of the year, when you've got a team somewhere between rebuilding and winning it all, the OU outcome should end up being somewhere between inconsequential and icing on the cake. Tennessee's biggest games will feel like Oklahoma, Florida, and Alabama. But Tennessee's most important games appear from 90 something days away to be Georgia, South Carolina, and Missouri. Win those three, and the Vols could have a very good chance to add their name to the recently growing list of teams who went from a so-so year to playing for the SEC Championship in Atlanta.