Tennessee finished 3-5 in conference play this season, with a negative net scoring margin. The Vols made their bowl eligibility bones in their last game of the season, beating a Vanderbilt squad that regressed more than any other team in the SEC. They finished beating soundly an Iowa team yesterday that clearly had little interest in playing. Considering what UT has accomplished in the past four seasons, it was a good year.
But evidently I’m not giving Tennessee enough credit.
There’s no doubt that Tennessee went through some growing pains this year, nowhere more so than during a stretch of the season where the Vols went almost two months between victories against FBS competition. And no one is going to mistake Iowa in a January 2 bowl game for Alabama in Tuscaloosa in October. But after winning three of its last four games — all against SEC opponents — Tennessee was already getting some buzz as a possible contender in what is expected to be another wide-open SEC East race. On Friday, the Vols gave everyone watching plenty of reasons to believe that they can deliver.
Those four opponents were South Carolina, Kentucky, Missouri and Vanderbilt. Murderers’ Row it wasn’t.
Look, no question that Butch Jones has recruited well. (Thanks for repeating that tidbit ad nauseam, Rod Gilmore.) Two things about that. First, he’s had to. The cupboard SOD left him was threadbare, to say the least. Second, it’s the SEC. Every coach recruits well in the SEC, or at least every coach does if he wants to stay employed. And, true, I doubt any team will be universally anointed as the division winner in this offseason.
But, geez, there are at least a few SEC East teams that will have a leg up on the Vols going into 2015. Tennessee had one player make the coaches All-SEC teams – Derek Barnett (he’s a good one) made second team. Every other team expected to be in the divisional mix next season did better than that. And while I realize that some of those names are moving on, the point is that, unlike Tennessee, Florida, Georgia, Missouri and South Carolina haven’t suffered serious drop offs in recruiting in recent seasons.
None of which is to say Tennessee won’t be improved in 2015. UT should be if for no other reason than there is more talent on the roster. The schedule is slightly better in that Oklahoma is a home game, too. But I think I’ll wait another year to see if they’re all the way back.