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Success is Slippery and Context is King

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Is this a good year? From a certain point of view.

NCAA Football: Missouri at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

A comparison we look to around here from time to time is Butch Jones at Tennessee and Hugh Freeze at Ole Miss, one year ahead: two unproven head coaches on the SEC level who made an immediate and stunning impact in recruiting to turn their programs around. Here are a bunch of words from the last time we made it in March:

When we talk about "winning enough", consider this: did Ole Miss have a great year last season?

The answer is yes, right? 10-3 and finished 10th in the AP poll for their first Top 10 finish since 1969. Beat Alabama, again! Beat their ranked rivals from LSU and Mississippi State by a combined 32 points. Made the New Year's Six and this time did the damage in a 48-20 blowout of Oklahoma State.

And yet, you've also got a second straight year of what could have been. Not only did they lose to Florida by 28 and Memphis by 13, they again had heartbreaking weirdness in the overtime loss to Arkansas. As we know, we were a 4th and 14 in Gainesville and a 4th and 25 in Oxford away from a Tennessee-Ole Miss SEC Championship Game. For the Rebels, that play means they're still the only original SEC West team to never make it to Atlanta, and still haven't won the SEC since 1963.

This is the danger of "Tennessee has to win the SEC East" or "Tennessee has to go at least 10-2" as a hard and fast definition for success in the preseason, which can lead to stubborn arguments against what should be an enjoyable year in progress. What if the Vols go 11-1 and Georgia goes 12-0? What if the Vols go 9-3 but beat Alabama and Florida and make the New Year's Six?

In my lifetime there have only been seven unanimously great years for Tennessee: SEC Championships in 1985, 1989, 1990, 1997, and 1998, plus 11-win near misses in 1995 and 2001, which means right away we're allowing for the possibility that a team can blow a chance at the national championship and still have a year unanimously considered great. I think the 10-3 season in 2004 should go on this list, but that would mean allowing for the idea at Tennessee that a three loss season can still be a great year, which some fans will never go for. Either way, it's almost never this easy. Most often we're left with years that roller coaster, which can leave you with good memories and good questions. Of course Ole Miss had a good year last season! But if I'm an Ole Miss fan, it's immediately followed by some comment on the distance between good and great.

Let’s start with the easy stuff: the Vols need to beat Vanderbilt to continue to entertain the idea that 2016 was a good year, and right now the Commodores are up 38-17 (!) on those same Rebels, which means we hope to stop making this comparison in year five. Beating Vanderbilt or basically anyone with a healthy offensive line and a running back on scholarship may not be easy for this Tennessee team at this point.

But if they do, Tennessee will have another hard-to-define year between good and great. It’s something Butch Jones’ Tennessee teams have done consistently: achieve, without drifting too far to the over or the under. And the conversation it creates leaves plenty of room on both sides.

Back in preseason if you knew Tennessee would win in Bristol, beat Florida, beat Georgia, and play in the Sugar Bowl despite losing Hurd, Kirkland, Sutton, and JRM for a combined 23 games? You would’ve taken that and called it an unquestioned success. And that’s in part because in that scenario, Tennessee winning the SEC East is an unquestioned assumption.

But instead, the Vols will be the first team of the Florida-Georgia-Tennessee triumvirate to go 2-0 against the others but lose the division to one of them since we felt this same pain in the very first year of divisional play in 1992. It’s a weird year with plenty of weird storylines.

That Sugar Bowl scenario is very real, by the way (every bit as real as the threat of losing to Vanderbilt). Our friends in New Orleans are required to take the highest ranked non-playoff SEC team. The Vols entered today at #19. Auburn is #15 with Bama on deck. LSU is #16 but lost to #23 Florida, who now has to deal with Florida State then Alabama. Texas A&M lurks at #25 and will also have a shot at LSU, but has struggled without Trevor Knight. We saw what the most likely scenario was worth in Baton Rouge today, but I might make the same argument for the Vols as the second-highest-ranked SEC team on Selection Sunday right now.

I really want that for this team because I want them to have something more tangible than “progress”. The SEC East would have been that, but was lost somewhere between South Carolina and turnovers six and seven at Texas A&M. The reality is this Tennessee team without three defensive tackles and JRM is incapable of stopping the run at anything near the level a championship requires, and bad things were likely against Alabama in Atlanta with or without a trip to the College Football Playoff on the line.

The conversation about Tennessee’s defense is a microcosm of the conversation about Tennessee period. “We gave up 740 yards to Missouri, we’re the worst defense ever!” Yeah, on 110 plays! On a per-play basis this was only the fourth-worst day of the year for the defense. Likewise for the rushing numbers: 420 yards is a lot, but 6.3 yards per carry isn’t as bad as we saw against Alabama, Texas A&M, or Kentucky. The Tigers ran 110 plays because the Vols scored 63 points in 67 plays. We’re extraordinarily thin up the middle and thus we’re bad at stopping the run. But let’s not act like this is the worst defense to walk the face of the earth. Let’s not pretend they haven’t regularly made big plays in the red zone to help an offense that really doesn’t need much right now. Context is king.

The losses to A&M and South Carolina cost the Vols a division title but probably not a shot at something more as this team currently stands. But the opportunity to claim tangible success - which a bid to a New Year’s Six bowl would do, even in a year of such parity in the SEC - is still available. And I want that for Josh Dobbs, Cam Sutton, Butch Jones and all of these kids who have made this thing so much better than when they found it, who deserve to end their time here with something more lasting than questions about why they didn’t build it even higher.