Tennessee Football: Where “Almost” Apparently Counts
This is the first in a series of posts examining the state of the SEC East and its collective almost-ness. I’m going to look at every team in the division, because as a Georgia fan every team in the division merits consideration as an annual opponent. But, I’ve chosen to start with the Tennessee Volunteers for two reasons: 1. According to most national polls, the Vols are the most relevant team in the division; and 2. I can always count on Tennessee fans to get upset, ignore context and say, “Well what about Georgia?” Georgia’s next. Tennessee fans won’t notice that I just typed that. But Georgia’s next.
You may have heard it said that hope is not a strategy. You’ve also probably heard that almost doesn’t count. In Knoxville, Tennessee, it appears that the combination of hope and almost is the winning ticket—at least this offseason.
The hope, to a pretty thorough extent, is understandable. Consider the recent context of Tennessee football. Since Phil Fulmer’s canning in 2008, the Volunteers posted 7, 6, 5, 5, 5 and 7 wins respectively from 2009-2014. Over that period Lane Kiffin (ha!), Derek Dooley (haha!) and Butch Jones (ha? maybe?) roamed the sidelines. Firing Fulmer, who just one year prior to being kicked to the curb won the division and 10 games, looked questionable at best. Then 2015 happened and along the way several recent records were established.
- Tennessee posted a winning regular season for the first time since 2009 (Kiffin’s first year).
- Tennessee posted a winning conference record for the first time since 2007 (Fulmer’s last full year)
- Butch Jones became the first post-Fulmer coach to reach a fourth year in Knoxville.
There is certainly cause for optimism for the Tennessee Volunteers. I’m not being facetious, insincere or otherwise troll-ish with that statement. Tennessee football looks better now than it has at any point in the post-Fulmer era (with the possible exception of right after Kiffin’s first year – remember, he won 7 games in year one).
I have no beef with the hope in the equation. However, take issue with the value pundits and fans alike place on almost.
Beyond the arguments that Tennessee seemingly always claims (strong recruiting, passionate fans, unbridled optimism), the two leading arguments for the return of Glory Days Tennessee Football focus on some variation of almost. After all, Tennessee almost beat some good teams last season, and Tennessee beat the tar out of a team that was almost good in a New Year’s Day bowl game.
Tennessee Almost Beat Some Good Teams
Tennessee lost to two of the College Football Playoff’s four teams by a combined 12 points. Toss in a one-point loss to SEC East Champion Florida, and all of a sudden Tennessee’s four losses seem awfully insignificant.
The problem here is that four losses are always meaningful—especially win those four losses reflect your best season in nearly a full decade and you’re positioned in preseason Top 10 polls.
The Amway Coaches Poll ranks Tennessee 10th. The nine teams above the Volunteers posted an average 2.11 losses in 2015. Three teams ahead of the Vols combined to lose a total of three games. You have to go to #17 to find a team with more losses than Tennessee (Southern Cal coming off a tumultuous 7-6 campaign). The top 15 schools (outside of Tennessee) are comprised of four 1-loss teams, five 2-loss teams and six 3-loss teams.
The recently released AP Poll is even higher on Tennessee (a #9 ranking). The eight schools above the Volunteers in that poll averaged exactly two losses in 2015.
In reality, Tennessee’s winning percentage in 2015 was closer to what it has averaged over the past 10 years than it was to a Top 10 finish (as measured by average winning percentage of Top 10 teams each year).
Going from four losses directly into the Top 10 seems odd by logic of “almost” for two reasons. First and foremost, Tennessee hasn’t been “almost” in the Top 10 recently. This isn’t a team coming off a lone rebuilding year or a team just breaking in a new coach or replacing a star quarterback. This is a team that’s been wandering in the desert for 40 years. Secondly, College football is an extremely competitive sport—especially when traditional powers are involved. If we’re going to count close losses this is gonna get real ugly really quickly. I, for one, refuse to give merit for Tennessee’s most narrow losses.
Tennessee willed itself to defeat against Oklahoma in overtime last September. It was incredibly impressive and hard to forget. And I can’t give Tennessee credit for that. Tennessee lost narrowly to a Florida team that frankly wasn’t all that good (1-4 vs. ranked opposition, outscored by more than 10 points per contest in those five games). Tennessee lost narrowly to an Arkansas team that lost five games. I give no points for that defeat. Tennessee played Alabama incredibly well, but still lost. We didn’t knock or elevate Alabama for losing that game (the Crimson Tide rose from 8th to 7th in the AP Poll and the Coaches Poll as two higher-ranked teams lost that same week) so why would we give credit to Tennessee for that?
Further, if we’re giving Tennessee props for games that it almost won, then we need to give Georgia and South Carolina credit for almost beating Tennessee (and I don’t think we need to do that!).
Sure, Tennessee turned things around beginning October 31 against Kentucky, South Carolina, North Texas, Missouri, and Vanderbilt, but think about that collection of teams for a minute:
- Kentucky: 2 Power Conference Wins (both on this list of crappy teams – South Carolina and Missouri)
- South Carolina: 2 Power Conference Wins (North Carolina and Vanderbilt)
- North Texas: 1-11 record, lone win was a 7-point victory over the University of Texas San Antonio.
- Missouri: 1 Power Conference Win (South Carolina) + Win vs. BYU
- Vanderbilt: 2 Power Conference Wins (both on this list of crappy teams – Missouri and Kentucky)
Again, those five teams (Kentucky, South Carolina, North Texas, Missouri and Vanderbilt) combined to win one game against a Power 5 Conference opponent not named Kentucky, South Carolina, North Texas, Missouri or Vanderbilt.
These were not good football teams. They weren’t even almost good football teams. Tennessee should have and did beat all of them.
Tennessee Demolished an Almost Good Football Team
In a bowl game.
This game means next to nothing.
Northwestern is a 3-5 SEC team at best. Guaranteed.
Northwestern lost to Michigan, Iowa and Tennessee by a combined margin of 107 points. Good football teams don’t do that. So ignore the 10-3 record and the time spent ranked in the Top 25. Just know that no self-respecting good football team loses three games by an average of nearly 36 points per contest.
So What Do We Make of Tennessee?
I honestly don’t know. Given the weakness of the division last year and the amount of talent in Knoxville, Vol fans should have a hard time loving Butch Jones knowing that he failed to win the SEC East when Florida was breaking in a first-year coach, Georgia was firing its coach, South Carolina’s coach was quitting mid-season and Missouri was boycotting football for a minute and its coach was stepping down.
Does that make sense? Sure, Tennessee has been down for some time, but things couldn’t have lined up better for the Volunteers than they did in 2015.
- Florida went through prolonged periods of offensive refusal as its quarterback was suspended for PEDs. Simultaneously an entire new coaching staff tried to pick up the shambles of an 11-13 two-year stretch of football in Gainesville.
- Georgia fielded three quarterbacks (one who only knew how to pass against South Carolina, one who didn’t know which arm to throw with and one who settled as a punter) and lost its best player to injury while treading water to such an extreme extent that the most-tenured coach in the league was finally drowned.
- South Carolina’s coach quit mid-season. People forget that happened.
- Missouri’s protests were the most noteworthy facet of the Tigers’ season.
But despite those factors in Tennessee’s favor, Jones manufactured enough losses to miss out on the SEC Championship Game.
And yet, Butch Jones is not only tolerated in Knoxville; he’s validated as the coach of a Top 10 program.
I think Florida will be better this year, and based on head-to-head competition and record, Florida was better than Tennessee last year. I think Georgia will be better this year (even a healthy Chubb should secure that prediction) so that could shift the outcome of that matchup. I think South Carolina will be better (though still not better than Tennessee). I think Missouri is still Missouri. But the point is this: I’m not sure why we’d expect such a drastic jump up for the Volunteers.
Further, much has been made of Tennessee’s talent, but it’s hard to give the Volunteers a decided advantage against the likes of Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Texas A&M (all of which are on the schedule in 2016).
Tennessee has almost as much talent as these schools based on average recruiting class ranking and a coach that almost beats good teams and often beats almost good teams. But is that enough for a Top 10 ranking? I say no.
Obligatory Joshua Dobbs Commentary
In closing, this would not be an article on Tennessee football if I didn’t properly pay homage to Joshua Dobbs, the lord and savior of Tennessee football (the Vols are 14-10 in games in which he plays). Dobbs can do things with his arm and with his legs, the problem is the things he does with his arm still leave much to be desired. For context, let’s compare his passing to that of Georgia
placeholder starting quarterback Greyson Lambert.
|Category||Joshua Dobbs||Greyson Lambert||Advantage|
Greyson Lambert was not a good quarterback. If he is the starting quarterback in 2016, it is unlikely that Georgia is a good team. But there’s a gap between good and great. So the question becomes this: Can Dobbs improve enough as a passer or do enough with his legs to take Tennessee from being good to great? I’m skeptical. He didn’t do that (in my opinion) in 2013, 2014 or 2015.
So what’s my prediction? I guarantee Tennessee won’t end the season in a Top 10 position. My gut is the Vols lose 3 games prior to Bowl Season and miss the SEC Championship. If 10-3 (bowl win) gets them a Top 10 ranking, I guess I might eat some crow. But I’m not banking on “almost” counting come January.
That’s all I got/