The preseason 2015 Coaches' Poll was released on Thursday afternoon, and for the first time since 2008, the Tennessee Volunteers are ranked in a preseason poll. The Vols barely snuck in at No. 25, but it marks the first time since 2012 that the Vols have been ranked at all before, during, or after the season.
It's been a seven year gap since the last time the Vols were even talked about as relevant in a national context before the season began. And while the 2008 season ended up a disaster, that void exemplifies and entire generation of Vol fans. There are children in elementary school who have never seen the Vols ranked in their lifetimes, and many of the student athletes committing to the Vols in the current recruiting cycles were born after Tennessee won its national championship in 1998. For this generation of Vol fans, myself included, failure and incompetence has been more of the norm than success for Tennessee's football team.
Since 2005, the Vols have had four winning seasons in ten years, and two of those years have been 7-6 seasons. In that ten year span, the Vols stumbled to a 64-61 record, including a 40-47 record since 2008. And since 2010, the Vols haven't beaten any SEC opponents besides Kentucky, Ole Miss, South Carolina, and Vanderbilt, racking up losing streaks to Florida, Georgia, and Alabama in the process. The last time the Vols experienced such a drought was over 100 years ago from 1903-1912 when Tennessee went 36-44-10 in ten seasons. But that was a century ago, and nobody alive remembers those teams.
To put the last decade into context, take a look at the previous ten seasons. From 1995-2004, the Vols went 101-25, won back-to-back SEC Championships, and won the National Title in 1998. It took the Vols seven seasons to win 40 games from 2008-15, but it took the Vols only four seasons to win 45 games from 1995-98. Fans who watched the Vols in the late 1980's and throughout 90's got used to Tennessee winning 10 or more games. Even those who began watching the Vols in late 90's and early 2000's saw a team at its peak, where a down year was Tennessee winning only 8 games.
But if the Vols were to win 8 or more games in 2015, it would mark the first time that has happened in 8 years.
For fans around my age and younger, watching Tennessee football has been more of a labor than entertainment. Seeing the Vols come up short against Florida, Georgia, and almost every other SEC school became the norm for this generation. Some fans have even seen Vanderbilt defeat Tennessee more often than they've seen the Vols beat Florida and Georgia. Younger Vol fans have likely never seen Tennessee defeat the Gators or even the Crimson Tide.
Some of my earliest memories of watching the Vols are of the teams in the early 2000's. My strongest early memory of Tennessee football is of the 2004 Florida game when the Vols miraculously came back and won the contest in Neyland Stadium, 30-28. That's the last time Tennessee has beaten the Gators, and besides the 2006 and 2007 seasons, the end of many of my good Vols memories. I attended college for the last two years of the Derek Dooley era and the first two of Butch Jones' tenure. Tennessee fans in my generation have more negative memories of the Vols than they do positive.
So it's easy to see why it's so appealing for the younger generation of Vol fans to buy in to the hype surrounding the 2015 Vols and the future of the program. For those in their 30's and above, the pinnacle of Tennessee football isn't such a distant memory. Those fans can still remember what expectations were like for the Vols in a year-in and year-out basis when the program was actually successful.
For the younger generation of Vol fans, however, that type of success is a faded memory. And if the Vols are able to achieve those heights once again, it will be the first time many Vol fans have ever experienced such a rise to glory.