In October 2014 when Tennessee was traveling to Oxford, we asked if the Vols were following the Ole Miss model. A year behind Hugh Freeze, it was at that point for Butch Jones a conversation largely about recruiting. The Rebels had jumped from 47th to 8th in the 247 recruiting rankings, and the Vols likewise were recruiting at a level far above their recent wins and losses.
Third-ranked Ole Miss would go on to dominate that night in Oxford to move to 7-0 before heartbreak set in: Bo Wallace was intercepted at the goal line with two seconds left when the Rebels were in range for a tying field goal in a 10-7 loss to LSU. Even greater tragedy struck at the goal line the following week when Laquon Treadwell was injured and fumbled into the end zone with 90 seconds to play in a 35-31 loss to Auburn. The Rebels would end the year 9-4 with an Egg Bowl win sandwiched between blowout losses to Arkansas and TCU in the Peach Bowl.
If heartbreak is part of the year three model, Tennessee certainly followed it well last season with details you don't need me to recount. Butch Jones' third year was ultimately the inverse of Hugh Freeze's, rebounding from a 2-3 start for a 7-1 finish to ride momentum hard into year four. The late season struggles for Ole Miss in year three had them picking up right where they left off for year four, ranking 17th in both the last poll of 2014 and the first of 2015.
Arguments for youth and patience ring hollow in year four. It's not just that you have to win enough to keep your job. You have to win enough to maintain the recruiting success that has likely fueled the progress you've made thus far, or you're likely to lose your job in year five or six.
On this level Ole Miss was successful last season. And while we're always going to be slaves of whatever season we're in, this is really the level that matters most: are you in the national conversation? Are you recruiting well enough to stay there?
For the Rebels, last year was mission accomplished on this front. Here's a comparison of the recruiting of Freeze and Jones with their 247 class ranking leading into each of their seasons:
Jones has the better raw numbers but considering the traditional expectations of each program, relatively speaking I think they've done very similar and equally remarkable jobs.
I like using Ole Miss as an example not just for the similar trajectories of Jones and Freeze, but because year four for Ole Miss is a tremendous example of how college football seasons rarely fit into the neat success/failure molds we make for them in our minds.
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.
This may be the nature of the beast in the fan base, but for the health of a program the small distance and handful of plays that often make the difference between good and great years tend to show up less in recruiting. Hugh Freeze may have sent his first star class of Nkemdiche, Treadwell, and Tunsil to the NFL without a championship, but they won enough to keep Ole Miss in the national conversation and allow Freeze to land another star class this February.
This is the conversation Butch Jones has recruited the Vols into, the one Tennessee's 7-1 finish last year ensured they will find themselves in as the 2016 season begins. Maybe we'll get unanimously great this fall, and if so hallelujah. But as Jones prepares to send the juniors from his first star class off to the NFL next April, the larger long-term goal this fall will be for them to win enough to keep Tennessee in the national conversation, and allow the Big Orange recruiting machine to stay well-oiled for the future. Seasons will always be judged on their own, and we'll have a great time judging this one with a higher bar coming in. But those individual seasons can turn in a few stunning ways. If you can recruit and win enough to make your home in the national conversation, you can always give yourself a chance to have those few stunning ways go yours, to play for and make those breaks.
Team 120 will look to continue the progress Jones has built to this point. He's now gotten the Vols back in the conversation. Whether it leads to a championship or not this fall, the Vols must win enough to continue to live there.