Let the critics moan and howl about the state of Tennessee football.
Let them toot their horns and bang the drums, looking for every crack in the facade to take to task. Last week, you heard them all and loudly. When South Carolina blew out the Vols unexpectedly, there were some hardcore Vol fans ready two write off the whole season as a failure.
Really? Folks really want to throw the baby out with the bathwater?
Evidently, that’s how it is. But when has that been any different? Pretty much every fanbase has its naysayers, Negative Nates (I got that one from the TV show M*A*S*H) and Chicken Little hand wringers.
Think about all of this in macro for just a moment. This team won just three games two years ago and has now won 10 games in a regular season for the first time since 2003? And you want to complain about that?
Similarly, last year, the Vols had a chance to exhume themselves from their myriad problems to knock on the eight-win door. Controversy in the Music City Bowl created a bit of drama as Purdue escaped with the victory. People were up in arms that the Vols were 7-6. Most of the punditry figured Tennessee wouldn’t win but four games last year. And they were at the precipice of eight victories?
Them there’s some awfully high standards.
Consider where this program was just 22 short months ago. It was mired in an NCAA investigation, in the midst of purging its whole football office and athletic department, seeking a new AD and new coach. In total, 30 kids, give or take, decided they didn’t want to stick around, so they jumped on the transfer portal conveyer belt out of Knoxville (though, it’s postulated that many of those transfers also were shown the door).
UT President Randy Boyd and Chancellor Donde Plowman scoured the football office and made some tough decisions. Needless to say, Tennessee fans were groaning, collectively, that the Tennessee football renovation project was that can that gets kicked down the road. How long would it be before Tennessee would be competitive again? Five years, 10 years, maybe more? The football job had turned so radio active that the fish in Ft. Loudoun Lake were growing extra heads.
Enter athletic director Danny White. His acquisition appeared to be a stroke of genius by the UT brass. He found the UT football job to be just too unpalatable and resisted the urge to call on his old friend Josh Heupel. But ultimately he relented. White and Heupel were charged with putting Humpty Dumpty back together again.
Fast forward to late November. This team ended long losing streaks to Florida and Alabama, spent time as the No.1-ranked team in the country, beat five ranked teams on its schedule, was part of the playoff conversation for much of the month and now seems likely to be in line for a pretty good New Year’s SIx bowl game, most likely the Orange or Cotton, though the Sugar could be a long shot.
Did the loss at South Carolina look bad? Of course. Horrible optics. The controversy about what did or didn’t happen behind the scenes made everything worse. The lack of focus in Columbia proved costly to a program that appears to be ahead of schedule in its reclamation project. Many of the pundits out there predicted Vandy would take down Tennessee, and why not? Vandy was hot and on a roll, having just beaten Florida and Kentucky.
It didn’t happen that way. The Vols beat Vandy 56-0 in Nashville enroute to a 10-2 finish. I predicted a 10-2 mark last January when I looked at the schedule. Many people looked at me as if I’d spent too much time in Colorado. Some wanted to take my car keys.
But fans have to remember, success is a journey, not a destination and the Vols are just getting started. After the loss to Georgia, I said that the moment might have been too big for Tennessee at this juncture. The Vols are “back,” certainly, but they aren’t “there” yet, if that makes sense.
In the meantime, you can’t ignore that this program is ahead of schedule. Perhaps it’s time to look for that baby and put it back in the tub. Going 10-2 at this point is quite the achievement, given where this program was.
Jim Steele is a correspondent for Magic Valley Publishing and the host of The Pressbox radio show, which airs 4-6 p.m. CT, Monday-Thursday on 95.9 FM, WRJB, Camden, Tenn.