Previewing Tennessee: High Expectations and Willie Martinez Go Together Like Peanut Butter and Gasoline
Tennessee’s campaign to be the laughingstock of the SEC is based on a pretty solid platform.
- The former national power is on its fourth coach since 2008.
- The Vols won the Eastern Division in 2007, but have not posted a winning record in conference play since.
- Last year Tennessee was just 1-7 in SEC action.
But, as much as I’d like to vote for the Vols as Unintentional Class Clown, I can’t bring myself to do it. From where I’m standing, Tennessee’s plight is more a reflection of an identity crisis than one of a changed identity. To be clear: the lack of direction (Phil Fulmer coached in 2008, Lane Kiffin in 2009, Derek Dooley in 2010-2012 and now Butch Jones takes the helm) has detracted from the program’s typical trajectory, but I don’t think the long-term potential for the Volunteers has changed.
Perhaps the most damning thing for Tennessee is that short-term expectations have not changed either. I don’t want to get into the intricacies of Tennessee’s recent coaching carousel as it would require doctoral degrees in psychology and sociology as well as a pint of moonshine to fully understand that situation, but unrealistic expectations on a season-to-season basis have certainly had adverse effects on the Vols.
I’m not saying Phil Fulmer should have been kept, but I will say that his last three years in Knoxville saw him post a 14-10 record in conference play. Over that three year period (from 2006-2008), Tennessee was the fourth most successful SEC program (in conference play), trailing only Florida, Georgia and LSU. But, expectations demanded excellence every single year, so Fulmer was canned after a down year in a screwy 2008 season that saw Vanderbilt finish third in the East and Ole Miss finish second in the West.
I’m not sure what the expectation was for Lane Kiffin, but if it was defined as anything other than “snake,” it was inaccurate.
After Kiffin bolted, Tennessee hired the polar opposite from a personality standpoint and in doing so brought in a coach who was coming off a three year career as a head coach at Louisiana Tech. Derek Dooley was not only unqualified to lead a big-time SEC program, but he’d struggled at a mid-major (he was 17-20 at LA Tech and was 4-8 in his last season there). Expectations were high (of course), and he couldn’t meet them.
The best thing for Tennessee football in 2013 is to have no expectations whatsoever. But, before we look ahead let’s recap.
Tennessee wasn’t as bad as advertised in 2012. Four SEC teams were cumulatively outscored by their opponents last year. Tennessee was not one of them. It might sound insulting to say that Tennessee was one of ten best teams in the conference, but when seven teams from the SEC finished in the top-25 that statement carries some weight.
Tennessee beat an NC State team that went to a Bowl Game. Tennessee hung with Florida for three quarters and gave Georgia and South Carolina all they could handle.
Tennessee could have upset the SEC East’s three best teams last year:
- The Vols were up 20-13 over Florida with 3:30 left in the third quarter. Trey Burton broke an 80-yard run to tie the game. On the next possession Tyler Bray was intercepted. Florida took the ball, Mike Gillislee broke a 45-yard run setting up a Florida TD to put the Gators ahead 27-20 with 1:49 left in the third. A few minutes later Jeff Driskel connected with Frankie Hammond for a 75 yard TD and the Gators went up 34-20. Later, Caleb Strugis connected on a long field goal (49 yards) following a 33 yard run by Mike Gillislee. If Tennessee’s defense could have made four tackles (one on Burton’s 80-yard run, one on Gillislee’s 45-yard run, one on Hammond’s 75-yard catch and one on Burton’s 33-yard run), the outcome of that game could have changed. Again, for the first 42 minutes, Tennessee was in control.
- Tennessee lost to Georgia by seven points in a shoot-out (51-44). Georgia scored on plays of 75, 51, 32 and 72 yards. Big plays against Tennessee’s defense caused the Vols to come up just short.
- Tennessee lost by just three points to South Carolina. Connor Shaw threw for a career-high 356 yards.
If you couldn’t tell, Tennessee’s offense (which averaged 36.2 points per game) was not the problem. The defense was the problem (with its 35.7 points allowed per game).
The defensive woes of the Vols last season make Butch Jones an interesting hire. He is admittedly more qualified than Dooley ever was, but a look at his experience (Tight Ends and Running Backs at Central Michigan, Offensive Coordinator at Central Michigan, Wide Receivers at West Virginia before becoming head coach at Central Michigan and then at Cincinnati) will expose him as an offensive mind. I’m not saying that offense doesn’t matter or that the loss of Tyler Bray and the team’s four leading receivers (Justin Hunter, Cordarrelle Patterson, Mychal Rivera, Zach Rogers) doesn’t necessitate a complete rebuild of the offense. But, I’m not sold on Tennessee’s addressing of the defensive shortcomings.
A big part of that concern stems from the fact that as a Georgia fan I’m quite familiar with Tennessee’s defensive coaching staff. Defensive Coordinator John Jancek came over with Butch Jones, but prior to his time in Cincinnati he was with Georgia as linebackers coach and co-defensive coordinator. Jancek was let go with the bulk of the Georgia defensive staff following a string of disappointing seasons in 2009.
One of his top assistants at Tennessee is his old boss and Georgia fan favorite Willie Martinez. Nothing brings a smile to a Georgia fan’s face quite like knowing Willie is on the opposing sideline coaching defensive backs. Last year he coached Auburn’s DBs to a 38-0 loss against Georgia. We’ll hope for more of the same!
But, Tennessee returns some talent on the defensive side of the ball this year. The entire Vol defensive line returns as do five of the top six linebackers. I don’t know if there was such a thing as “top” defensive backs in Knoxville last year, but six of the seven most productive players from that unit are back for more.
The strength of the team will be the offensive line, where the returning core unit represents 130 career starts. And with their two leading runners (Rajion Neal and Martin Lane) back, I’d expect the Vols to rely heavily on the ground attack while breaking in a new quarterback.
If Tennessee fans could truly check their expectations, then they’d be able to recognize this year’s schedule as a fun one. It won’t be fun if you expect to win 10 games. But, it will be fun within a grander rebuilding scheme.
Tennessee will face off against five of the nation’s top 10 teams according to the preseason Coaches Poll: #1 Alabama, #3 Oregon, #5 Georgia, #7 South Carolina and #10 Florida.
My advice to Tennessee fans is to mark those games down as losses (because they likely will be) and forget about them. With those games out of the picture, you can redefine a perfect season as 7-0. And, if you think logically and embrace the fact that very few coaches are perfect in their first year a realistic 5-2 mark comes into focus.
Tennessee will get four wins against Austin Peay, Western Kentucky, South Alabama and Kentucky. I think the season will meet reasonable expectations if they also beat Missouri. That gives the Vols five wins. Again, they’ll lose to the five top-10 teams that were previously mentioned (which is perfectly OK!!!!!), and they’ll probably suffer setbacks against Auburn and Vanderbilt.
I’m not saying this to be a condescending jerk, I’m saying this because I truly believe it: a 5-7 season would be a great start for Butch Jones. And, a 5-7 season is very much possible. Tennessee fans, please give this outcome a chance so that Butch has a chance.
That’s all I got/