Column: Where’s the Light at the End of This Tunnel?

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    Photo by Anne Newman/RTI

    Tennessee just suffered a 26-point loss to Florida at home in front of over 100,000 fans in Neyland Stadium. And it wasn’t even a great Florida team that pummeled the Vols.

    The Gators demolished the Vols with a 47-21 victory in Knoxville on Saturday night. It was the most points the Gators had scored on Tennessee since they dropped nearly 60 on them in 2007 when they handed the Vols a 59-20 beat down in Gainesville.

    But that Florida team was good. That Florida team was ranked inside the top 10 of the AP Poll for most of that season. This Florida team lost to Kentucky two weeks ago, snapping a 31-game winning streak over the Wildcats. And yes, Kentucky looks like a very improved football team this year than they have in the past, but the Gators haven’t looked impressive so far this season regardless.

    The Vols treated the 100,000 Vol fans in attendance to six turnovers, six penalties, and just an abysmal overall performance. But what’s worse is that things are only about to get even uglier.

    Tennessee travels to No. 2 Georgia next weekend, head to No. 10 Auburn after a bye week, then host No. 1 Alabama after that. Then they cap off the month of October by traveling to Columbia to face a South Carolina team that just walloped an improved Vanderbilt squad 37-14.

    After that, the Vols get lowly Charlotte at home. Then they host a Kentucky squad that’s ranked No. 17 in the AP Poll after they dominated Mississippi State 28-7, play at home against a Missouri team that played Georgia pretty tough, and finish off the season against Vanderbilt.

    So I ask, where’s the light at the end of this tunnel?

    For this season, things may not really get better. Tennessee just had their worst season in program history last year after going 4-8 overall and 0-8 in SEC play, and they could be looking at similar or worse right now. A 3-9 season sure does seem feasible, and a 4-8 record again this year is definitely not out of the question.

    The only way it gets better for Tennessee this year is if some of the younger players begin to step up or if this team really starts to buy in. But right now, it doesn’t look like the latter is going to happen, and the former may not be enough to save the Vols from bottoming out once again.

    So, when does it get better?

    Recruiting will be the only way Jeremy Pruitt and his staff can improve things in Knoxville. But Vol fans have heard that line before. They experienced it with Butch Jones. He brought in a bunch of four and five-stars to Tennessee, and he still couldn’t win the division because of his lack of coaching acumen.

    Butch took a program that was in the cellar, brought them out for a brief moment in the sun, then whacked them in the back of the head with a shovel and attempted to bury them alive.

    I can sit here and tell Vol fans to be patient all I want. But this is the fourth different rebuild that Vol fans have had to be a part of in just the last decade. Tennessee was supposed to be in a rebuild in 2009 when Lane Kiffin took over. Then when Kiffin bolted for USC and after a huge amount of roster attrition, they were even deeper into a rebuild in 2010 when Derek Dooley was (mistakenly) hired. After three unsuccessful years of Dooley, Butch Jones was brought in to try and clean up the mess.

    It looked like for a moment that Jones was finally able to end the rebuilding process at Tennessee. But then things completely fell apart midway through the 2016 season, and Jones didn’t have the talent on the 2017 roster (specifically at quarterback) to hide his shortcomings any longer.

    So here we are, 10 years after the firing of Phillip Fulmer. And Tennessee still hasn’t recovered.

    I’m not going to say Tennessee is cursed. I’m not even going to argue whether or not firing Fulmer was the right or wrong decision. But Tennessee has been in various states of disrepair for the last decade, and this is the fourth time in 10 years that the fan base has been asked to be patient and wait for another rebuild.

    It’s not Jeremy Pruitt’s fault that this is the situation he’s walked into. But he and his staff surely have to be aware that things in Knoxville are truly at an all-time low right now, and Vol fans are tired of sitting back and watching their team get trounced by every other SEC team in the conference.

    Tennessee can get better in time. But Pruitt and his staff deserve that time, even if it’s going to mean a painful couple years are still on the horizon. Pruitt and his staff have done a good job in recruiting thus far, and it does look like Tennessee’s newcomers have been some of the better players on the roster so far this season.

    But it makes sense why so many Vol fans have such little optimism right now. Especially after the way Saturday night went.

    It’s not fair to Vol fans. It’s not fair to the players, coaches, or administrators either. Unfortunately, it looks like the truth is that the light in the tunnel for Tennessee is still miles away. But that light is still there, no matter how far it is.

    Nathanael Rutherford
    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.