By Steve Williams
My advice to Tennessee fans heading into the 2015 football season would be to enter with cautious optimism.
I say that after reviewing the past six rebuilding seasons. The Vols’ combined won-loss record over that stretch was 35-40, and that included wins over Chattanooga, Austin Peay State, Georgia State, Buffalo, Tennessee-Martin and a 63-7 shellacking of Western Kentucky.
My review focused on the other end of the spectrum, and how UT has fared against Top 25 opposition since Phillip Fulmer was fired in 2008. You might want to sit down.
Tennessee is 2-29 against Top 25 ranked teams. Lane Kiffin was 1-3 in his one season. Derek Dooley was 0-15 in three tries. Current head coach Butch Jones is only 1-11 after two campaigns.
Still, some Tennessee fans believe this could be a breakthrough season for their team and have championship aspirations.
Tennessee, no doubt, will have to do much better against Top 25 ranked opponents if that is to happen.
Quarterback Joshua Dobbs sparked that hope last year after an injury to starter Justin Worley and backup Nathan Peterman’s ineffectiveness forced Coach Jones to finally let Dobbs play.
Dobbs’ ability to run as well as throw simply made Butch’s offense work.
There’s no question the opposition should be better prepared to face Dobbs this season. Despite that, I believe the talented Dobbs, a 6-3, 207-pound junior, will continue to be effective in the zone-read spread attack. Hopefully, he will be able to remain healthy.
Tennessee also has other offensive weapons as the majority of last year’s starters return, plus there’s the addition of running back Alvin Kamara, a former Alabama signee and junior college standout, joining a bigger Jalen Hurd (6-4, 240) in the running game. Maybe this also will be the season the receiving corps reaches its full potential.
The offensive line remains a question mark and two from that group – redshirt senior Marcus Jackson and redshirt sophomore Austin Sanders – were lost for the season when they suffered bicep tendon injuries in preseason camp.
The Vols could have a big-play defense with the likes of sophomore end Derek Barnett, senior LB/DL Curt Maggitt and junior cornerback Cameron Sutton. Two of the nation’s top freshmen tackles – Kahlil McKenzie (6-3, 344) and Shy Tuttle (6-2, 311) – also will be a big part of a six-man rotation up front.
On paper, the past six-year record against ranked teams suggests a title run would be a pipe dream.
Butch was 0-5 against ranked teams last season, but the first three of those losses – against Oklahoma, Georgia and Ole Miss – were played with Dobbs on the bench.
Jones was 1-6 versus ranked teams in his first season at Tennessee, but he did coach the Vols to a 23-21 win over No. 11 ranked South Carolina in Knoxville.
The closest Dooley came to notching a win over a ranked opponent came in 2010, his first season at UT. In fact, his Vols were already celebrating a huge win over No. 12 LSU in Tiger Stadium when officials informed Dooley LSU would be allowed to snap the ball again even though it had committed a foul on what was thought to be the game’s last play. LSU punched in a touchdown for a 16-14 victory.
In 2009, a week after almost upsetting No. 1 ranked Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Kiffin guided the Vols to a 31-13 win over No. 21 ranked South Carolina on Halloween night in Neyland Stadium. That was the game the Vols wore the black jerseys.
By the way, earlier that season, Kiffin saw his Vols fall at top-ranked Florida 23-13. Kiffin kept the contest against Urban Meyer and Tim Tebow close by shortening the game, which took only 2 hours, 54 minutes to play. By comparison, two weeks later, Tennessee’s game against Auburn had an elapsed time of 3:38.
Fulmer was 0-4 against Top 25 foes in 2008. That fateful season started with the Vols losing at unranked UCLA 27-24 in overtime.
In 2007, Fulmer was 3-3 versus ranked teams, including a 21-14 loss to No. 5 LSU in the SEC title game. His Vols rebounded to beat No. 18 Wisconsin in the Outback Bowl, giving UT a No. 12 ranking for the year.
Although Jones’ record against ranked teams doesn’t yet show it, the progress he has made in rebuilding the Tennessee program has advanced to the point that some UT fans foresee a very successful 2015 season.
By looking at the facts behind Jones’ numbers, I can also see such a scenario. In my book, everything adds up to being cautiously optimistic.