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Defining Success: Tennessee in the 2000s

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Looking back at what we frequently consider to be a decade of decline for Tennessee teaches us to enjoy the journey as the 2016 Vols look to return to the championship conversation.

You can be my wingman anytime.
You can be my wingman anytime.
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

When discussing Tennessee's last run as an elite program we usually refer to the Vols in the 90s. That period really stretches just beyond the margins, to an 11-win SEC Championship in 1989 and the doorstep of the BCS title game in 2001. As such, when we refer to the Vols in the 00s, we're typically talking about a period of decline from 2002-08 that ultimately cost Phillip Fulmer his job.

As the Vols prepare to return to the championship conversation this fall, we've spent some time talking about the nature of a good year. While we dream of the unanimous greatness the Vols found many times in the 90s, it's been so long since the Vols saw the consistent goodness of the 00s it too would largely represent progress.

SB Nation's Bill Connelly has been using his S&P+ percentile rankings to go back through recent college football history, yesterday listing the top teams and programs of the 2000-09 decade. The 2001 Vols came in as the 39th best team of the decade, ranking third in their own year behind the Miami juggernaut and Florida (and the head-to-head police will clean that up swiftly). The 2001 Gators finished 14th in the decade rankings, another testament to that night in The Swamp, one of 11 SEC teams ranked higher than the 2001 Vols (including all four Tebow teams, national champions from Alabama and LSU, undefeated Auburn from 2004, and, more surprisingly, 2000 Florida & 2006 LSU).

You can, of course, pick at these rankings in any number of generally unwinnable historical arguments. None of us are surprised to see the 2001 Vols as Tennessee's highest representation on that list.

What is more interesting to me:  in a decade we considered to be defined by decline, the Vols still finished 10th among programs overall.

Tennessee stands out on Bill's list as the only program in the Top 13 that didn't win a conference championship in the decade, a failure to cash in that cost Fulmer and would do the same to anyone over that many years. Even in a system with conference championship games, sooner or later you need to win one to help the final impression on your season be something other than what could have been.

But in the midst of these seasons, even in a time that wasn't as good as the decade that preceded it, you most often simply want to find yourself in the championship conversation. Seasons can turn from good to great and back on a handful of plays or outright luck. But a program itself becomes great by staying in the conversation and giving itself a chance.

The Vols may not have felt like a Top 10 program to us during the 00s, but they were better than we remember at staying in the conversation:

  • 2000: Obvious rebuild after most of the 1998 national championship roster left
  • 2001: SEC East champs, #2 in the BCS before losing to LSU in Atlanta
  • 2002: Preseason #5, finished 8-5
  • 2003: Split SEC East in three-way tie, ranked #6 at end of regular season before losing to Clemson in Peach Bowl
  • 2004: SEC East Champs, ranked #9 before Erik Ainge was injured in November 6 loss to Notre Dame
  • 2005: Preseason #3, finished 5-6, Randy Sanders fired
  • 2006: Ranked #8 before Erik Ainge was injured again on October 28, lost to #13 LSU on November 4
  • 2007: SEC East Champs after starting 1-2
  • 2008: 5-7, Phillip Fulmer fired
  • 2009: Lane Kiffin year
In four of the decade's ten seasons the Vols came to November still in the championship hunt, plus won the SEC East in 2007. The seasons book-ending the decade really ended up being what we thought they would be with seven regular season wins for a pair of rebuilds. The disappointments of 2002, 2005, and 2008 ultimately hurt Fulmer to be sure. But Tennessee was able to play meaningful football into the month of November in half of its seasons over the decade.

As definitions of success rise and fall, it's impossible to clear the bar every year. But it's not impossible to give yourself a chance almost every year, something the best and healthiest programs do.

Tennessee will enter 2016 in the championship conversation for the first time this decade. Maybe they'll end it with a ring in Atlanta and a ticket to the playoff, and we won't have to figure out what kind of year it was. But as we're happily remembering and re-learning how to follow such a team, it's the chase itself that will come first. No SEC team has gone undefeated since Auburn in 2010; one loss wouldn't be the last word on anything. If Tennessee just plays well enough to keep itself in the championship conversation deep into the season for the first time in a decade, we'll have plenty of new old reasons to enjoy the journey no matter how the destination ends up.