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Looking Back: Phillip Fulmer & Butch Jones

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Tennessee Volunteers v Kentucky Wildcats Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

It's not a valid question anymore, the "Would you still move on from Fulmer if you had it to do over again?" business. Tennessee is now back in the championship conversations it last enjoyed under Fulmer's watch to the credit of its current coach. And more than just a one-year upswing, Tennessee's recruiting has returned to form as well over enough years for us to believe 2016 won't be the last word on Butch Jones.

Some of the words in the space between as they related to Fulmer have always bothered me. The certainty of some arguing Tennessee would have been better off without its coach of 17 years - even if we hadn't hired a one-and-done in Lane Kiffin - never meshed well with Tennessee's 35-40 record in the first six years after his dismissal. The Vols were many things at the end of Fulmer's tenure, but a sub-.500 program was certainly not one of them, even if you only include his descending years from 2002-2008 in which the Vols still went 57-32.

I would argue with equal certainty that, had the Vols kept Fulmer after 2008, Tennessee would have been better than 35-40 over the last six years. But would he have been able to get the program back to something more than the 8-4 average he put up from 2002-2008?

We don't know, though many of us have guessed. And with Nick Saban and Urban Meyer dominating the league at the time of Fulmer's dismissal at the head of the Vols' two biggest rivals, I'm not sure he would have had too many more seasons to find out even at 8-4. But the main reason the question has become invalid is Butch Jones has positioned the Vols to aim higher than 8-4 again.

2015 was, on paper, the kind of season the Vols had at the end of Fulmer's tenure: 9-4 with a couple of memorable victories and losses to Florida and Alabama, again. Tennessee went 9-4 in 2006 and 10-4 in 2007. But the truth behind the facts of 2015 continues to show the Vols were much closer to the proverbial great year than any of Fulmer's teams got after 2001, a truth which continues to fan the flames for 2016.

Team 119 finished the season ranked 22nd, the program's first ranked finish since 2007. In Fulmer's last six years from 2002-2008 the Vols missed the final poll three times but finished 15th (2003), 13th (2004), 25th (2006), and 12th (2007) in the other four years.

However, Tennessee may open the 2016 season ranked higher than any of those teams finished. If the Vols are in fact a preseason Top 10 team, it will be the first time they find themselves there since 2005. Fulmer's final seven teams included a pair of Top 5 preseason rankings (and huge disappointments) in 2002 and 2005, but the other years the Vols were ranked between 12-23 coming into the year.

The territory Butch Jones and Team 120 are really trying to break into last came from 1995-2001, when the Vols finished in the Top 10 six times in seven years (and in the Top 5 three times) and were in kind rewarded as a preseason Top 10 team seven times in eight years if you include 2002.

Having already returned Tennessee on the field to the kind of success we saw at the end of Fulmer's tenure, it's now the job of Butch Jones to get Tennessee back to the kind of success we saw in Fulmer's prime. This work began already in recruiting, where Jones turned in three straight Top 15 classes (and two in the Top 7) after his first full season on the job.

The Vols technically had three straight Top 15 classes from 2009-11, but Lane Kiffin's 2009 class was so decimated by transfers and dismissals it really can't count for anything. Removing that, you have to go back to 2003-05 for the last time the Vols signed three consecutive Top 15 classes. Fulmer had a string of consecutive Top 5 classes before then, but it's unfair to expect Butch Jones to recruit in the same manner over that many years without the on-field success Fulmer enjoyed to back it up. Remember, Fulmer took over for Johnny Majors two years after back-to-back SEC Championships. Butch Jones took over for Derek Dooley.

Would you still move on from Fulmer if you had to do it over again? What matters now is Tennessee is back in those old championship conversations with elite recruiting as the foundation. To continue to recruit at an elite level, the Vols are going to have to start winning the way Fulmer did in his prime. It's been a long and rocky road, but Butch Jones is now poised to answer the questions we were asking of Fulmer those eight long years ago, and in doing so take Tennessee back to ground it hasn't touched in 15 years.