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Fulmer’s Past, Butch’s Present, and Tennessee’s Future

The Vols are winning as much now as they did at the end of Fulmer’s tenure, but the SEC has significantly changed.

Florida v Tennessee Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Here’s the question all these words and many others on this site and elsewhere are really trying to figure out: what is a reasonable expectation of success for Tennessee Football in the current SEC climate? And how confident are we in Butch Jones to achieve it?

And here’s the context for fans asking this question, both because it’s relevant and because it still makes us feel warm and fuzzy: from 1989-2001, Tennessee was the winningest program in the SEC:

Winningest SEC Teams 1989-2001

Team Wins Losses Ties Pct
Team Wins Losses Ties Pct
Tennessee 129 29 2 0.813
Florida 129 32 1 0.799
Auburn 98 51 3 0.656
Alabama 103 55 0 0.652
Georgia 94 57 1 0.622

And from 1995-1998 - the last three years of Peyton Manning and the 1998 BCS title - the Vols were the winningest team in college football:

Winningest NCAA Teams 1995-1998

Team Wins Losses Pct
Team Wins Losses Pct
Tennessee 45 5 0.900
Nebraska 45 6 0.882
Florida 44 6 0.880
Florida State 43 6 0.878
Ohio State 43 7 0.860

You and I know these seasons by heart. Today’s recruits do not.

With next month’s signees too young to remember 2001 and Peyton Manning no longer in the league, the connection between Tennessee’s past and present feels fully severed. But that was supposed to be fine, because this year’s team was supposed to be the one to make all these new memories. And for five or six weeks, they certainly did.

But now the Vols are left with 9-4 on the heels of another 9-4, with 7-6 before it. Setting aside Butch Jones’ first year (5-7) in the immediate aftermath of Derek Dooley, he is 25-14 in the last three years (.641).

Phillip Fulmer in his last seven years from 2002-2008? 57-32 (.640).

That winning percentage is 8.3 wins in a 13 game season. Jones has been more straight and narrow, while Fulmer had two losing seasons and three 10-win seasons in the twilight of his time.

The Vols were the fifth-best team in the SEC over each span. But, as we’ve pointed out many times, Alabama has changed the narrative of the conference. In Fulmer’s final seven years the conference was short on singular dominance. Steve Spurrier left Florida in 2001, Nick Saban came and went at LSU by 2004, and Urban Meyer wouldn’t arrive in Gainesville til 2005. The SEC won or shared national titles in 2003, 2006, 2007, and 2008, plus an undefeated season from Auburn in 2004, but that’s three different schools at the top, plus Georgia’s first SEC title in 20 years in 2002.

Now, everyone is 8-4 that isn’t Alabama. During the end of Fulmer’s run Georgia, LSU, Florida, and Auburn all got to feel like successful programs. All won between 72-80% of their games. Now Alabama is winning 93% of their games and no one else in this league can crack 72%.

A perceived inability to compete with the league’s very best helped push Fulmer out the door. Now the league’s very best wears only one name; Georgia and LSU have already pushed their coaches out for going not merely 8-4 but 9-3 too often.

Tennessee still hasn’t finished a regular season with less than four losses since 2007 and a season overall that way since 2004. That’s a lot of something-and-4’s with a brief walk through the bamboo in between.

In a way, Fulmer’s last seven years were preferable to what we’ve seen the last three years because the highs were higher. Would you take two losing seasons to win the SEC East twice? You can’t play that game forever without higher highs than division titles, but right now no one is doing any better than that in this conference with Bama in the way.

So, how might we better define and re-define success for Tennessee in the current climate?

I’ve always thought what Fulmer was able to do in winning division titles approximately every three years (back-to-back in 1997 & 1998 then 2001, 2004, 2007) was a good standard. Tennessee winning the East every three years on average leaves room for the assumption that Florida and Georgia are also going to be good.

But you also can’t box yourself in with, “Butch Jones has to win the SEC East this year/next year or the season is a failure,” language, and not just because Georgia or Florida might win 11 to our 10. If Tennessee goes 9-3 next year? That would be progress, whether we like it or not. And if the rest of the league continues to flail in 8-4 land? 9-3 might be worth a little more celebration.

Butch Jones is not 95-98 Fulmer and may not be 02-08 Fulmer either. But this is also a different time with different rules. Tennessee is different - in the eyes of those playing and those being recruited to play the Vols cannot be a whole lot more than an up-and-coming program with a big ol’ stadium and crazy/passionate fans - and as such our expectations must fit the times.

Forget the 90’s and forget Saban. I think the real question right now is, can Butch Jones recruit and coach the Vols out of his pack of contemporaries? Can he beat Kirby Smart, Jim McElwain, Will Muschamp, Barry Odom, Mark Stoops, and Derek Mason enough to elevate Tennessee to at least the level of regularly winning the division? In the long game, can he at least hold his own with Malzahn, Orgeron, Bielema, Sumlin, Freeze, and Mullen when their paths cross in living rooms and on fall Saturdays?

I don’t know the answer to this question. The answer on Fulmer became no not just because he could no longer reach the bar he set so high, but also because there were so many others to point to who were doing it better at the end. Right now after Bama no one is doing it particularly well but no one is doing it much better than Tennessee either. Jones beat Florida this year and has two straight on Georgia. Keep that up and he’ll be just fine in the long run. And perhaps the better comparison is what the Vols did once they switched to Josh Dobbs full-time, going 22-9 (.710). That’s a little better, but still offers no significant separation from the pack.

For all the words I and others spilled this season on how 2016 was like some year in the past, it ultimately couldn’t bear that weight. And to me it’s a great reminder and perhaps a small awakening to not ask the same of Team 121 or others who follow it.

In this new era, Butch Jones and Tennessee still have a chance to be successful. How that will look and if Jones is the man to get them there? We’ll have to wait and see.