“The Vols are back … and before long we’ll be taking a bite out of everybody we play’s ass.”

Then-Tennessee athletic director Phillip Fulmer said those words at a National Signing Day event in February 2020.

During his time as the Vols’ head coach, Fulmer rarely made comments that opponents could use as bulletin board material. Time and again, Florida coach Steve Spurrier lobbed verbal grenades at Tennessee, and Fulmer almost never responded in kind.

But in early 2020, Fulmer couldn’t help himself. The Vols had just improved from 5 wins in 2018 to 8 in 2019 under Jeremy Pruitt, the guy Fulmer hired following “Schiano Sunday.” The Vols won the Gator Bowl, and had just brought in a top-10 recruiting class.

We all know what happened next. A 3-7 season, an NCAA investigation, Pruitt’s firing and Fulmer’s “retirement.” Looking back, that successful run at the end of the 2019 season was done with smoke and mirrors. The Vols were able to work around Jarrett Guarantano’s limitations at quarterback. The schedule got much easier, with the best opponent being Indiana in the bowl game.

So no, the Vols were not back.

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Tennessee sports betting officially launched on November 1, 2020. Tennessee was the first SEC state to legalize sports betting.

Fast forward to the present day. The Vols are 4-3, without what you could describe as a good win. Sure they destroyed Missouri and South Carolina, but neither team is any good. We knew that the Ole Miss game would tell us a lot about where the Vols stand.

The Vols lost 31-26, and some buffoons felt that the proper way to respond to some iffy calls from the referees as to throw an assortment of bottles and condiments onto the field. It was an ugly scene and ended up being what most of the national sports media took from the contest.

But to this observer, the game proved that while the Vols are not back … they aren’t far away.

During the Derek Dooley era, the Vols were mostly outmatched in terms of talent, and absolutely at a deficit with the coaching staff. Under Butch Jones, the talent was good enough to win the SEC East in 2015 and 2016, but that coaching staff cost them chances for big wins multiple times. With Pruitt, a staff that had a reputation for making players better failed mightily.

We are only 7 games into the Josh Heupel era, but you get the feeling that things will be different this time.

Thanks to the transfer portal, the Vols were short-handed before they even held their first practice under Heupel. Injuries have taken their toll as well, with running back Tiyon Evans and center Cooper Mays missing the Ole Miss game, and starting right tackle Cade Mays being knocked out early against the Rebels.

The defense, already lacking in depth, was on the field for over 100 plays against one of the top offenses in college football with a Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback.

And the Vols still almost won.

“We were probably the thinnest football team in America when we started,” Heupel said after the loss to Ole Miss. “We have way more guys injured than you would want. The fight and competitive spirit inside of our locker room, the want to play for the guy next to you because you love him, and you’re willing to do anything. We are developing and growing the right way. Those pillars inside of our program, if we keep building upon those, we are going to have a chance to have a really special program here.”

Moral victories don’t go in the trophy case, and they aren’t why Heupel and this staff were brought to Knoxville. But if they can continue to progress in this fashion with Tennessee continuing to replenish the roster …

Maybe the Vols will be back sooner than later.