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What is the Ceiling for the Tennessee Football Program?

Are the Volunteers doomed to play second-fiddle?

NCAA Football: Florida at Tennessee Bryan Lynn-USA TODAY Sports

It’s a bit odd to be discussing an almost philosophical topic in the middle of the football season. Right now, Tennessee is 2-3 and on a bye week, prepping for the rest of a schedule that doesn’t let up until the very end. The Volunteers are more worried about getting five wins than they are a bowl game at this point, which is a pretty good indication of where they stand in Year 0 of the Jeremy Pruitt era. Turns out that coming off a 4-8 disaster season with a negligent head coach can do that to a program.

Tennessee is not the only former heavyweight struggling to return to form. About 930 miles to the northwest lies the Nebraska Cornhuskers, who are off to an 0-5 start under prodigal son Scott Frost. It’s not the beginning anyone expected, but they’re still fully committed to letting Frost get his system up and running.

The former dominance of these two programs contrasted with their current state has outside observers making the obvious connection. Much like everything else in the United States, everything got worse after the 1990s, and the Nebraska/Tennessee similarities are too obvious to pass up.

A recent article from SBNation delved into a question: Which program will return first?

This piece isn’t a response to that one, but instead I’ll use it as a jumping off point.

Tennessee’s failure to produce a consistently good team has now reached a decade in length. It’s gotten to the point where many fans can only remember Tennessee glory days as a distant memory. It’s like everyone is still waiting for time to rollback to 2008, and for Tennessee to alter the course of the program.

Now it’s even a question if Tennessee has the structure to do it. There’s recently been an argument going around that goes something like this (obviously paraphrasing):

“Tennessee fans have unrealistic expectations for their team. Their glory days of 1990-2007 were actually the exception, not the norm for the program. They’ll never be on the same level as Alabama or even anywhere close to it. They’ll never be able to be nationally competitive like they used to be.”

It’s becoming a running joke that expectations are a reason Tennessee fans suffer from disappointment. The idea is that if they would accurately gauge their program’s ceiling, they would be more accepting of their current situation. Are any of these legitimate points?

There is a valuable truth that Tennessee fans should recognize. Mainly, what Alabama is doing is completely unprecedented and should never be viewed as the barometer for a program.

The Crimson Tide exist in a time where the NCAA has let teams run rampant on the recruiting trail and largely turned a blind eye to any improprieties which would spoil the sport’s image. It makes sense from their point of view—the NCAA is simply a collection of schools, and the recent FBI investigation into college basketball rocked the landscape. College football absolutely does not want that type of attention on its indiscretions, because if it’s coupled with growing concerns over safety and fair compensation, it could be a truly fatal blow to the security of its institutions.

That’s a long way of saying that teams trying to replicate Alabama’s dominance are setting themselves up for failure. They either don’t have the head coach to pull it off or the type of program support that wields power in the governing body.

(As a side note: Tennessee has considerable financial support, with revenue just outside the top 10)

Don’t get me wrong, Nick Saban is one of the greatest head coaches of all time. Both on the field and on the recruiting trail. Let’s also be honest with ourselves and accept that he is able to do this because of the current environment.

So no, don’t ever expect Tennessee to reach Alabama levels of success. There might only be two other programs in the nation who could actually do that.

Playing in to the next argument, one I’ve heard recently is that the Butch Jones years were actually more in line with Tennessee’s history. Though it seems like a long time ago, Jones did produce two 9-win seasons and showed progression early in his career. But is that what Tennessee fans should expect?

Here are the numbers for each coach after integration, starting with Bill Battle in 1970. Lane Kiffin is excluded because he was only in Knoxville for a single year.

Bill Battle: 59-22-2 (.710)
Johnny Majors: 116-62-8 (.623)
Phil Fulmer: 152-52 (.745)
Derek Dooley: 15-21 (.416)
Butch Jones: 34-27 (.557)

The conclusion here seems fairly obvious: Butch Jones’ tenure is not the norm at Tennessee. While his 2015 and 2016 seasons boasted solid win totals, they also deserve context. Jones was not ousted because of his inability to beat Alabama or Georgia or any other top tier opponent. He was fired because he couldn’t consistently beat teams like Kentucky or Arkansas or even South Carolina. The completely winnable games against Florida that he continued to lose also hurt.

Even by a pure wins-loss record standard, Jones was once again an underachiever. In his five years at the helm, Jones won seven or less games in three different seasons. For the sake of demonstrating the point, we’ll scrap his final year and just give him two.

In 16 years, Fulmer had two seasons with seven or less wins. In 15 years, Majors had eight. Majors’ saving grace was the era he coached in, where firing someone wasn’t as common unless they were an unmitigated disaster. Still, by the 1990s, Majors’ inability to reach the next level became unacceptable.

Is it possible that Tennessee only accomplished what it did during Fulmer’s years because of a down conference? Georgia wasn’t a world beater, Alabama was mediocre, and other teams simply weren’t the level they were accustomed to.

Two things about this argument. One, Alabama had five 10-win seasons from 1990 to 2000. They were certainly not in the gutter, and they provided quality challenges to Tennessee. Two, they still had Florida to contend with, and while the Gators certainly had their number for most of his tenure, they were still able to overcome them enough to be a national contender.

Tennessee does face challenges though, especially with the modern outlook of college football. There are plenty of factors today that didn’t exist even in 2008.

These factors lead me to my next conclusion.

I don’t think Tennessee can become a yearly national championship contender (in the near future)

When I speak of current yearly national contenders (aside from Alabama), I think of Ohio State, Clemson, and Oklahoma. These are all teams which are expected to compete for a national title basically every season. Clemson is a very recent addition to that group, but they’ve shown it on the field with three playoff appearances and a national championship.

Why these teams?

  1. They are in easy divisions where their path to 10 wins/conference championships is more manageable.
  2. Their recruiting has reached an elite level.

That’s it. There aren’t all that many factors in total, but they’re both essential.

The good news for Tennessee is that both of these can change over time, hence why I added the “near future” part. But for now, the SEC has the most dominant program of all time on one side, and a recently enthused Georgia team that has emulated the recruiting tactics of its counterpart. It also has a filthy rich Texas A&M program with a national championship winning coach, and an LSU program that has basically locked down in-state recruiting. Fun times.

Nick Saban will eventually retire, Kirby Smart may or may not be able to replicate his recruiting dominance, etc. But for the next decade, it looks like there are more than a couple of programs who have head starts over Tennessee at the moment.

So is it all doom and gloom for the future? Will Tennessee football be limited to 8-4/7-5 hell? Not necessarily.

Tennessee has the potential to become a cyclical contender

This is actually what Tennessee football was during the days of Majors/Fulmer. The strength of competition and that competition’s dominance in recruiting means that Tennessee won’t be able to square up with them in every consecutive season.

However, the Volunteers can still recruit well enough to have certain two or three year windows when a veteran-heavy squad gives them an experience advantage. These are the windows where they would have the best chance of defeating those opponents.

Cycles would presumably include 8-win seasons, some 7-win seasons, and then a couple of 10+ win runs. For a Tennessee fanbase that has suffered through four seasons that ended without bowl games in the past decade, that’s a pretty good deal.

I’ve talked a lot about recruiting, so it seems that we should give a quick snapshot of what Tennessee can reasonably expect there as well.

The original article linked at the beginning of this piece kind of equates the recruiting situations at Nebraska and Tennessee. This is where I would push back the strongest.

I mentioned this back in my first piece I ever did for Rocky Top Talk, where I gave an overview of in-state recruiting and how Tennessee might approach it in the coming seasons. The state of Tennessee is producing talent at a much higher level than it ever did during the Fulmer years—even the later ones. This somewhat lessens the necessity of a national recruiting brand, since you can grab a few elite players in your own backyard.

But they still need that brand for states like Georgia, Alabama, and others that are nearby. All of those states have so much talent that it’s impossible for the home team to exert that much control over it. Hence why only three the top 10 players from Georgia in the 2019 class are actually committed to the Bulldogs.

Pruitt is currently hinting what Tennessee can accomplish on the trail during an era where recruiting is recognized as the lifeblood of programs. Despite a 4-8 season in 2017, and despite Pruitt himself being a first-year head coach, there is a strong chance that Tennessee finishes in the top 15 of recruiting rankings, if not top 10. They’re still favored for a few more top 200 prospects as well. That is genuinely impressive.

If I had to bet on which SEC teams Tennessee will consistently out-recruit, it would look something like: Kentucky, Vanderbilt, South Carolina, Ole Miss (bye Hugh), Mississippi State, Arkansas, and Missouri. They also have a chance to routinely out-recruit Florida if Dan Mullen can’t improve on the trail.

Final thoughts

Unrealistic fan expectations need to be reevaluated. No, Tennessee cannot become the next Alabama (almost no one can). The program trajectory for the Volunteers likely tops out at an occasional national championship run, with conference contention and above .500 seasons filling the rest of the years. That could change in the coming decades, but probably not any time soon.

Guess what? That’s a lot more than most programs can say. In fact, I’d wager that most Tennessee fans would gladly accept a return to consistency that includes those conditions. Losing to great teams is nothing to be ashamed of—losing to inferior teams is where the fan ire comes from, and Tennessee did a lot of that from 2007 onwards.

National media can contribute to a sort of dogpile effect, where maligned programs all of the sudden see themselves as a victim of revisionist history. Tennessee is arguably the most notable of these teams. Despite a pretty clear record of SEC success and a rational examination of recruiting potential, all of the sudden it’s a question if Tennessee can ever return to prominence.

Here’s the bottom line: Tennessee has money, fan support, and solid recruiting ability. Those three factors mean that the Volunteers have the building blocks to once again reclaim their status in the college football world.

Now, it’s up to the coaches to capitalize on it.