The Success and Failure of the Vols in 2016

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    Photo Credit: Donald Page/UT Athletics

    Photo Credit: Donald Page/UT Athletics

    Coming into the 2016 season, the hope and expectation for many Vol fans this year was for Tennessee to not only compete for the SEC East title, but to actually win it for the first time since 2007. Well, the Vols did the first part of that, but they failed to do the second. And that’s left many fans unsure of how to feel about this season.

    On one hand, this squad has taken another step in the right direction in terms of the development under head coach Butch Jones. There are still games to be played, but right now the Vols are on track to increase their win total in the regular season for the fourth time in as many years under Jones. All this despite an unprecedented rash of injuries while playing one of the nation’s toughest schedules.

    But to some, those just sound like excuses. To some, this was the “put up or shut up” year for Jones and his staff. It was “Atlanta or bust” for the season, and for those fans, this season is a failure.

    When a team fails to meet its ultimate goal to start the season but still shows progress in other areas, it’s hard to figure out what to take away from that season. And that’s why it’s okay to feel conflicted about Tennessee this year.

    In the bigger picture, looking at this season compared to the last decade of Tennessee football shows how much the Vols truly have improved. Tennessee went from three consecutive 5-7 seasons from 2011-13 to barely making a bowl in 2014 to winning 17 of their last 24 games. That’s improvement no matter how you look at it, and that should be appreciated.

    But you can appreciate how far the Vols have come and still be disappointed with the outcome of this season.

    Yes, the Vols are far removed from the Dooley years at this point. Tennessee is finally making bowl games every season again, and it is no longer a team anyone can overlook on the schedule. But the goal heading into this season was to win the SEC East, and the Vols failed to do that. Does that make the entire season a failure? Some will view it that way. And they’re not wrong in thinking so. If a team can’t accomplish its ultimate goal, that by definition can be considered a failure.

    Unfortunately, football (and most things in life) are rarely that cut and dry.

    The improvement Tennessee has shown this season, especially early in the year, was so promising to fans. The way the Vols performed against their biggest East rivals in the first half of the season made fans feel like this could be a special year.

    Then injuries, team chemistry issues, and three consecutive conference losses happened.

    No matter what side of the fence you’re on, Tennessee’s loss on the road to South Carolina is inexcusable. Even with the injuries the Vols had at that point, they had a better team than the Gamecocks. Just look at how the Vols have torched teams in the weeks after that game. Plus, the South Carolina debacle happened after Tennessee had a bye week.

    If Tennessee doesn’t lose to South Carolina, it doesn’t need LSU to beat Florida. The Vols would’ve controlled their destiny again after the Gators lost to Arkansas.

    It’s moments like the one against South Carolina that have fans still upset even despite the improvement overall in the win/loss record. Tennessee’s injuries have piled up for sure, especially on defense. And that can excuse some of the bad play on defense for the Vols, but not all of it.

    Bob Shoop was brought in to elevate Tennessee’s defense to an elite level after John Jancek helped get it to an upper-level SEC defense. This year’s defense was supposed to be a top-tier SEC defense, one that would alleviate the pressure off the offense. Then injury after injury happened, and the depth was worn thin.

    But even that doesn’t excuse the truly historic plunge the defense has taken over the last month.

    The Vols have given up 353 rushing yards to Texas A&M, 409 yards to Alabama, 443 yards to Kentucky, and 420 yards to Missouri over the six weeks. Even with the amount of injuries the Vols have had, that’s an absurd amount of rushing yards to allow.

    In fact, Bob Shoop’s defense has now replaced the infamous Sal Sunseri defense in the record books. Missouri’s 740 yards of total offense supplanted Troy’s 719 in 2012 for the most yards a Tennessee defense has allowed in school history.

    It’s not all been bad for Shoop’s defense, however. The Vols are in the top 15 nationally in tackles for loss and turnovers forced on the year. So they are giving up big plays, but they’re also creating big plays.

    Which is just another reason why this season has been frustrating to so many.

    The Vols had the most talent this season they’ve had on a roster in a long time. And in the first half of the season, Tennessee was mostly delivering on that promise. The Vols were turning the ball over and playing sloppy, but they were winning, and those things can be overlooked when you win.

    Then the losses came, and the SEC East slipped through Tennessee’s fingers.

    Tennessee can still make it to the Sugar Bowl this season. That would be a huge stage for the Vols, and that cannot be underestimated at all. But if you viewed this season as “Atlanta or bust” or simply find the loss to South Carolina as a travesty, then no amount of improvement you’ve seen on the field will completely alleviate your anger.

    There’s still football to be played, but the sting of losing the East to Florida is still fresh. The East crown was right there for the Vols, and they fumbled it away.

    It’s okay to be happy with the steps the Vols have taken and still be disappointed in this season’s outcome at this point. That’s the wonderful complexity of college football for you.

    Nathanael Rutherford is the managing editor and social media manager for Rocky Top Insider. Nathanael graduated from the University of Tennessee and cultivated a passion for the Vols while growing up in Knoxville a mere 10 minutes from Neyland Stadium. He's been a part of the RTI team since November of 2015 and has been the editor of RTI since June of 2017. If he's not talking or writing about Tennessee athletics, he's probably talking about Star Wars.