As anyone who follows SEC football could've predicted, Tennessee has been picked to win the SEC East in 2016, picking up 68% of the first place votes and 93% of the maximum possible vote total in the media poll. And if you spend any time talking to rival fans, you've almost certainly heard it. "Tennessee is back? Like they have been the last three years?" Or "seriously guys, this is definitely their year, for real this time!" There is no denying that the last decade or so has been a rough time to be a Vols fan, and Tennessee's rivals have had plenty of opportunity to gloat. But there's a familiar storyline that goes beyond just a troubled stretch for Tennessee football. It asserts that every year, the preseason is full of people declaring that the Vols are going to be back on top, and that every year, Tennessee falls short. And it won't be hard to find some example of delusional optimism if you look hard enough--after all, Will predicts 13-0 (well, 14-0 now) every August. But is there a general rush to declare Tennessee back every summer? We've dug up preseason media polls for every season since Fulmer's exit, and--well, let's look at the tape.
|Year||Projected East Finish||Actual East Finish|
So is there a rush every year around this time to proclaim the Vols back? If "back" means "at least in the top half of the SEC East," then no, there isn't. The media have pegged the Vols to finish in the top half of the division just once since Fulmer's exit: last year, when the Vols were picked 2nd in the East and finished exactly there, 2nd in the East.
Even if "back" is a bit of a stretch, are the Vols still overrated every summer? Not really. In the last seven years, Tennessee has finished above expectations in the division three times (2009, 2010, and 2014) and below expectations three times (all in a three-year stretch of 6th-place finishes from 2011 to 2013 btw fire Dooley). Just once has Tennessee finished more than one place behind their preseason projection, the 2011 season that was definitely a horrible year to introduce your spouse to the Big Orange. If the Vols aren't in the thick of things for the East this season, it would be the farthest they'd fallen short of preseason projections since Butch Jones took over. (If you're curious, Butch Jones has coached a team that finished more than one place below their preseason projection just once in his career: his first year at Cincinnati).
So next time you hear that "every year we go into a new season believing it's the season that Tennessee finally puts it together and wins the SEC East" (which, prior to this year, the media has collectively believed just three times since the 1992 expansion and just once (1996) when the Vols weren't defending champions), just have this table handy.