Column: Where Exactly is Rock Bottom?

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    Photo by Jake Nichols/RTI

    Over the last 11 years, Vol fans have claimed Tennessee’s football program has hit rock bottom multiple times. Yet every time that appears to be the case, something else happens to prove that UT football still, inexplicably, hasn’t reached the deepest depths of embarrassment just yet.

    In 2008, Vol fans thought Tennessee had fallen to rock bottom after losing to Wyoming, a lowly Division I school that had no business even contending with the Vols in Neyland Stadium, even with the dark clouds of Phillip Fulmer’s firing hanging over the team. But after the 2009 season, that proved to not be rock bottom, because head coach Lane Kiffin bolted after one season as head coach and left to coach USC, leaving UT with no gameplan to replace him.

    After Tennessee hired Kiffin’s replacement, Derek Dooley, Vol fans hoped UT’s program would turn things around. But that wouldn’t be the case, and a new rock bottom was found when the Vols lost to a Kentucky team in 2011 that started a wide receiver at quarterback. The Wildcats prevailed 10-7 in one of the ugliest games Tennessee has ever played on the football field, and many wanted Derek Dooley fired after the game.

    He wasn’t, though, and a potent Tennessee offense was wasted in 2012 thanks to a historically bad defense, and the Vols were trounced by Vanderbilt in November to end any hopes of making a bowl game.

    Surely that would be rock bottom, right?

    Well, not exactly.

    After Dooley was fired after that loss to the Commodores, UT’s administration hired Butch Jones to serve as head coach. After a lackluster 2013 season, the Vols made a bowl game in 2014 for the first time in three years, and the 2015 season saw Tennessee put Oklahoma, Florida, and Alabama on the ropes before eventually losing in all those contests. Still, the Vols closed the season strong, and a blowout victory over Northwestern in the Outback Bowl to end the season gave Vol fans optimism that the corner had finally been turned.

    Then 2016 happened, and Vol fans realized things still weren’t back to normal.

    Tennessee got out to a 5-0 start and had dramatic victories over Florida and Georgia, but then they crumbled down the stretch and finished 9-4 despite being the favorites to win the SEC East. That letdown, along with the departure of several NFL caliber players, left the Vols in a bind in 2017.

    That’s when the Vols’ worst season in program history happened.

    After winning a back-and-forth, double-overtime game against Georgia Tech to start the year, Tennessee completely fell off the face of the Earth and finished 4-8 and 0-8 in SEC play in 2017. The Vols’ eight total losses were the most in school history, and that season marked the first time in the program’s 75 years of SEC football that they finished winless in conference play.

    That had to be rock bottom, right? Reaching historical ineptitude is as low as a program can go, surely.

    Maybe not.

    Tennessee fired Butch Jones in November after the Vols’ disastrous loss to Missouri on the road, and the process of hiring Jones’ replacement began almost immediately. After going through a few names, Athletics Director John Currie zeroed in on Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen.

    But Mullen passed up an opportunity to coach at Tennessee and decided to accept the head coaching job at Florida. That’s when Currie turned to Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano as his next choice.

    Boy, Tennessee’s fan base really didn’t like that one bit.

    Vol fans revolted en masse against the potential hiring of Schiano due to his ties to the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State, and the backlash was enough to torpedo the hire. After that, Currie moved on to several other targets, all of which turned down his job offer to become the next head coach at Tennessee.

    Then, Currie went rogue and tried to hire Washington State head coach Mike Leach. Chancellor Beverly Davenport didn’t approve, and she called Currie back to Knoxville and put him on suspension immediately after he met with her the next morning. Currie would eventually be fired, and Phillip Fulmer would be named his replacement.

    That kind of embarrassment following the football program’s worst season ever was the lowest of the lows. It had to be. Nothing could top that, right?


    Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt was hired as the Vols’ next head coach, and his tenure got off to a rocky start with a blowout loss to West Virginia to start the season. Tennessee would also get drubbed by Florida, Georgia, and Alabama in the first half of the season. But a road victory over Auburn and an upset win over a top-15 Kentucky team in Neyland Stadium gave reason for hope.

    After that win over the Wildcats, though, it looked like the Vols just ran out of steam.

    Tennessee again gave up 50 points to Missouri for the second-straight year, then the Vols looked disinterested and discombobulated in their regular season finale against Vanderbilt. The Commodores controlled both lines of scrimmage and dominated the Vols en route to a 38-13 win. That 25-point victory marked Vandy’s largest margin of victory over Tennessee since a 26-0 win all the way back in 1954, and it gave the Commodores their third-straight win over the Vols. That type of winning streak hadn’t happened since Vanderbilt rattled off six-straight wins over UT from 1920-26, almost 100 years ago.

    That loss to end the 2018 season was certainly rock bottom, yes? Vol fans, local media, and national media were all saying as much after the embarrassing debacle in Nashville, and surely this time it was true.

    Apparently not.

    Jeremy Pruitt made several big-time hires during the offseason after that loss, and the Vols brought in an impressive haul on the recruiting trail, especially considering the previous season’s results and how Tennessee has looked on the field the last few years.

    Hopes were high among the Vol faithful that the 2019 season would mark the long-awaited turning point for Tennessee’s football program. But the first game of the season brought those hopes careening back down to earth.

    Tennessee suffered a massive setback on Saturday, falling 38-30 to Georgia State in front of a lackluster 85,000 fans in Neyland Stadium. The game wasn’t even actually as close as the score would suggest, as it took a Tennessee touchdown with two seconds remaining to make it a one-score game on the final stat sheet.

    The Vols couldn’t get a push in the run game despite being significantly larger than Georgia State’s front seven, and Tennessee’s own front seven couldn’t generate enough consistent pressure to knock the Panthers out of a rhythm. Throw in three Tennessee turnovers, two costly pass interference penalties, and just an overall inability to make plays, and Vol fans watched as disaster struck on the football field yet again.

    For Georgia State, the win marked the first time the Panthers had ever beaten a Power Five team in school history. And that history is relatively short. Georgia State just started playing football in 2010 and have only been an FBS program since 2013.

    Did I mention that Georgia State was 2-10 last season? And that the loss for Tennessee was their first against a Sun Belt Conference opponent and their first against a non-Power Five team since that aforementioned Wyoming game back in 2008?

    This loss begs the question: Is this finally rock bottom for Tennessee? Can anything top this in terms of embarrassment and just overall incompetence? Will this finally be the turning point that Vol fans have been hoping for over the last decade?

    Things actually can get worse this season. Tennessee could lose to UT-Chattanooga, for example. Or the Vols could go 3-9 on the year. But barring either of those two happening, this has to be the lowest of the lows, right? Or will Tennessee be rocked by some major scandal and receive sanctions a la Missouri this past offseason or any number of schools like Michigan State, Penn State, and others over the years?

    At this point, Vol fans have learned not to assume that the latest low point on the football field is actually as bad as it can get. But if this Saturday isn’t actually the worst it can get for Tennessee’s football program, then God help the Volunteers.

    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.