It wasn't that long ago when Tennessee's program was the model of consistency in a wild and woolly Southeastern Conference. The Volunteers regularly competed for the SEC East Division title. They made bowl appearances like clockwork, every holiday season. And, without question, they held dominion over Vanderbilt in the battle for in-state bragging rights in the SEC.
That was then. This is now. And the Tennessee team that Butch Jones inherited is very different from the one that made 19 bowl appearances in 20 years, winning one national title in 1998. Jones, the Vols' fourth head coach since 2008, takes over a team that's posted four losing records in that five-year span. Prior to 2008, the Vols had just one sub-.500 finish in the previous two decades, in 2005. Getting off to a 3-6 start in 2008 earned Phillip Fulmer his walking papers. And, now, it's Jones' turn to try and do what Lane Kiffin and Derek Dooley could not: make Tennessee a competitor in the SEC again.
Jones faces quite the challenge. Tennessee is as irrelevant in the SEC as it's ever been during the modern era. The SEC has produced seven consecutive national champions, and recent years have seen South Carolina surge to the top of the division in a three-way race with Georgia and Florida for supremacy in the East. Even Vanderbilt has leapfrogged the Vols, tallying one of its most lopsided wins ever in the history of that series.
Folks aren't expecting Jones to spark some immediate turnaround at Tennessee. The Vols have been picked to finish fifth in the East ... yes, behind Vanderbilt. Jones also inherited a brutal schedule that sees Tennessee face Oregon, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama as part of a murderer's row broken up only by a home game against FBS neophyte South Alabama and an open date.
Don't expect Jones to put much stock in those predictions.
"Last place I was at we won two championships in a row and I believe we were voted fourth or fifth in our conference but I thought we had the best collection of individuals who bought into a goal and they held each other accountable to the standards and expectations of the football program," said Jones, who arrives from Cincinnati.
The first order of business? Improving Tennessee's level of performance in the SEC. The Vols have posted consecutive 1-7 records in the SEC for the first time ever. Prior to that, the Vols' only other one-win finishes in the SEC came in 1954, 1964 and 1977.
SPOTLIGHT ON SEPTEMBER: All attention in Vol Nation is focusing on the third and fourth games of the season, as Tennessee travels to Oregon and Florida in successive weeks. A more important game, however, might be in Week 2 when Western Kentucky comes calling to Neyland Stadium. The Hilltoppers were one of the better teams in the Sun Belt Conference and new coach Bobby Petrino is no stranger to what it takes to win against SEC teams, as the former head man at Arkansas before he was forced out there due to scandal.
KEYS TO SUCCESS: Hold the line. Tennessee's offensive line is the unquestioned strength of this team, with 123 career starts when combining all the linemen's prior experience. Senior tackle Ja'Wuan James has 37 career starts and has been in the lineup for every game to date in his collegiate career. Counting everybody, Tennessee returns 123 career starts on its offensive line. That's good news in every aspect of the game, ranging from pass protection and run blocking and stamina. It's a good thing when the newcomer to the lineup already has 14 career starts on his docket, and the Vols feel good about at least two guys coming off the bench. If the Vols can match the eight sacks allowed in 2012, it will be an outstanding building block for Jones' era as coach.
AREAS OF CONCERN: Tennessee still has yet to make a decision at quarterback, with returnee Justin Worley and redshirt freshman Nathan Peterman the two prime candidates. Depth at defensive took a major blow when veteran Jacques Smith and freshman Corey Vereen both went down due to injury. Smith fractured his thumb and will be out 4-6 weeks, while the early enrollee Vereen is out with a meniscus injury that could shelve him until late September.