KNOXVILLE — It is has been over a decade since Tennessee competed for an SEC championship.
It was Dec. 1, 2007 in Atlanta. Tennessee led No. 5 LSU 14-13 in the fourth quarter. Needing to covert a 3rd-and-5 to burn the clock, Erik Ainge dropped back, intending to make the short throw to extend the drive. The pass was intercepted by LSU’s Jonathan Zenon, who returned it for a touchdown. A two-point conversion gave the Tigers a 21-14 lead, which became the final score, sending LSU to the BCS national championship game — and sending Tennessee in a completely opposite direction.
It’s hard to pinpoint that one play in that one game more than a decade ago as the moment Tennessee descended into a decade of mostly despair.
But maybe things would have been different had Ainge led Tennessee on a scoring drive and the Vols held on to win that SEC title game. Maybe an SEC title and Sugar Bowl berth would have bought Phillip Fulmer more time. We know the rest of the story.
Fulmer was gone after the 2008 season. Three other coaches came and went too, none completing five full seasons.
So regardless of what might have been and what was, Tennessee is just weeks from ringing in the Jeremy Pruitt era with a season-opening clash against No. 20 West Virginia and its Heisman candidate quarterback, Will Grier.
Maybe it was that seemingly never ending stint of Lane Kiffin, Derek Dooley and Butch Jones, losing seasons and botched coaching searches that has lessened the image of the Tennessee brand in the eyes of the nation, but it doesn’t mean fans should lower their expectations of one of college football’s most storied programs. It’s clear that Pruitt hasn’t. He said as much when took to the podium after accepting the job, as expectations were the main theme of his introductory speech.
“I know everyone in this room is excited,” Pruitt said. “I’m going to tell you what my expectations are. You’re expectations are going to be near what mine are. My expectation is to win every game that we play. That is the expectation that I have.”
It sounds nice and we’ve all heard it, but after it became so painfully obvious that Jones was hanging his hat on winning mid-level bowls and 9-win seasons, there is no reason for fans not to have the same expectations as Pruitt.
Tennessee, after all has reached heights other programs dream of. The past decade isn’t indicative of what they were on a national scale for a very long time. This shouldn’t be forgotten. Six claimed national championships, 13 SEC championships, 40 consensus All-Americans and one of the most iconic playing venues in all of sports. The expectation of what the program once was and what it can be again shouldn’t be lost on the fans, because it’s certainly not lost on Pruitt and it wasn’t lost on his old boss, Nick Saban.
Before Saban arrived at Alabama, the Crimson Tide, who once were the pinnacle of the college football world, had suffered through NCAA sanctions and off the field scandals. Remember when Alabama won 9 games under Mike Shula in 2005 and it was considered a success? Nine wins at Alabama now would be considered a failure and it’s because when Saban took the job in 2007, he had an expectation too and it was the same expectation that Wallace Wade and Bear Bryant created eons before.
Nobody is saying Tennessee needs to win the SEC and make the Playoff in 2018. It’s unlikely they shut down Grier and a potent West Virginia offense in Week 1. Beating Georgia, Auburn and/or Alabama seems unrealistic. This year. But there are other ways to measure progress and success. Better play-calling, for instance. Better game management. Running the ball inside the 5-yard line instead of passing it, or merely not struggling to put away teams from the Sun Belt.
Pruitt is raising the bar back to where it should be.
That’s above a middle-tier bowl game. Expect Tennessee to display a certain brand of football that eventually translates into them being one of the SEC’s premier programs again. As fans, it’s OK to have that expectation, too.