Perspective. It’s like wine. It gets better with time. Or at very least more dependable.
In 2008, many saw Phillip Fulmer as complacent. A few years later, most realized what he’d truly been was under-appreciated.
Remember when his brash replacement was considered by many to be the Volunteer version of Steve Spurrier? It was barely a year before Lane Kiffin would prove instead to be a me-first jerk when he announced his departure from Rocky Top in an untucked shirt.
And Derek Dooley morphed from a man with loads of potential and a kick-ass pair of pants into a clown with a fancy cane and questionable boat shoes. All courtesy of perspectives that grew truer with time.
Remember when the big question about Butch Jones was whether or not he could recruit in the SEC? Fast forward to today, and perspective says he can. On an elite level, at that.
Which is one reason Vol Nation is wrought with anticipation for the upcoming season. For the first time in a long time, fans sense a return to glory is on the horizon.
The buzz about this team is palpable. The reported progress of Worley, the return of Pig, the potential of a Marlin Lane – Jalen Hurd backfield, not to mention all the talent UT’s amassed on the outside. And that’s just the offensive side of the ball. Throw in a healthy Curt Maggitt, a returning A.J. Johnson, a maturing Jalen Reeves-Maybin and a secondary led by Brian Randolph and Cam Sutton and, well, the words practically utter themselves, right?
Don’t sleep on the Vols.
Except UT plays in the Southeastern Conference, a league that features Big Boy Football if there ever was one. And Big Boy Football is won and lost in the trenches. Yes, many of this year’s projected starters on both the offensive and defensive line have gotten some snaps. And yes, many have been in the system for a while, now. But make no mistake about it, the Vols are revamping on both sides of the ball. Which is why 6-6 would be a fantastic mark for this team.
Given the program’s momentum, it seems counter-intuitive to expect similar results this season as last, especially now that enough time has passed to have a truer perspective on the job that Butch Jones is doing. But perspectives can often be counter-intuitive. Like the weekly ones that emerged last season, for example.
When the Vols were up 7-0 on the road in Eugene, Butch was on pace to deliver a natty. (Admit it. It crossed your mind, even if only jokingly.) Until Oregon delivered a beat down so severe, it required stitches. The common thread? UT needed better play at the quarterback position.
Hence the fan base’s mantra heading into Florida. Anyone but Worley. Yet after an ugly loss in the Swamp, one got the sense that UT might have won had Worley started the game under center. Still, after a reasonably competitive effort on the road against a ranked divisional foe, there was reason to be optimistic.
Which is why it was so disheartening when the Vols had to rely upon a fourth-quarter pick in the end zone by Brian Randolph to preserve a home victory against South Alabama the following week. But all that disappointment did was set the table for one of the most compelling games in recent memory, the valiant effort against Georgia.
That contest ushered in another perspective, one that struck me as I left the stadium. Tennessee Football was coming off such a state of disrepair, that noble losses were worthy celebration, a bittersweet acknowledgement to be certain. Which is why the South Carolina win the following week was so euphoric. Not only was Butch’s team capable of competing against the nation’s best. They were capable of defeating the nation’s best, indisputable evidence of tangible and meaningful progress in a post-Fulmer era that had witnessed anything but.
Yet Alabama, Auburn and Mizzou would drive home a sobering reality. Though Butch Jones had Tennessee headed in the right direction, there was still a ways to go, a fact Vanderbilt would prove when a local boy strolled into the south end zone to score the winning touchdown for the wrong team. The Vols had dropped five of their last six, and a season that once looked destined to be a magical one would end without a bowl appearance. UT beat Kentucky in the season finale to finish 5-7.
But even with the heartbreak at the end, Butch’s 5-7 felt a lot different than the last 5-7 under Dooley. And it was.
Team 117 wasn’t loaded with NFL talent like Dooley’s team was. They were loaded with heart. And discipline. And conviction. Which is how they helped Butch Jones earn something Derek Dooley never could — a signature win. Against a team ranked fourth in the nation at season’s end. Coached by Steve Spurrier, no less. On that October day when they woke us up and reminded us what it used to feel like.
Soon they’ll be hitting in pads again, and soon after that the fall will come, and when it does, Butch Jones will enter his second season as UT’s head coach. And though that season will likely carry a mark similar to the first, the Vols are clearly on the rise. A consensus top-7 2014 class, and a 2015 class that currently ranks inside the top 10 both point to promising days ahead. As does a current roster that boasts far more talent than the last. Which is why the predictions really don’t matter. Because in that promise is hope.
But even if things do go according to the prediction of many, last year proves that Vol Nation is still in for one hell of a ride. Won’t be long before it’s time to buckle up. And when you do, a quick word to the wise.
Don’t sleep on the Vols.
Because today, we have a truer perspective on Butch Jones and the state of this program than we did this time last year. It’s not a mirage. Butch Jones and his team are on to something.