This has to be the low-water point for the University of Tennessee football program. It has to be, right?
The Volunteers are 30-point underdogs -- the program's biggest pity pile of points since college spreads became common in 1980 -- tonight at No. 2-ranked Alabama. There seems to be little chance of UT winning, and almost as painfully, the program's signature moments the last two seasons are losses -- 12-10 at Alabama in 2009 and the controversial 16-14 defeat at LSU a season ago.
Strangely, that loss two years ago against Alabama -- a loss that galvanized a hungry Vols fan base behind coach Lane Kiffin -- seems ironically poetic today. That day, not unlike this one, the Vols were supposed to be manhandled. That day, more than likely completely unlike this one, UT was within a Terence Cody blocked field-goal attempt from winning.
The nadir facing UT fans is not entirely unexpected. Having three head coaches in four years -- and the accompanying player turnover -- leaves gaping holes on the roster and unfillable voids on the depth chart.
The despairs of this morning -- and tonight's trip to the lion's den that is Bryant-Denny Stadium -- make it easy to wonder if the program is better or worse today, midway through year two under coach Derek Dooley, compared to what would be midway through year three of Kiffin.
If Pete Carroll had stayed at Southern Cal rather than bolting to the NFL to avoid NCAA punishment, which ultimately cost AD and chief Carroll supporter Mike Garrett his job, Carroll likely would not have been at USC long anyway. USC hired Pat Haden to replace Garrett, and Haden would have fired Carroll and never would have hired Kiffin.
In fact, more than a few people believe Haden will run Kiffin the first chance he gets and make a hard push at USC alum Jeff Fisher.
Without having the USC job to skedattle off to, Kiffin would have remained in Knoxville, and the fevered pitch that he created among the Vols Nation would have only grown. Whether you love Lil' Lane or loathe him, there's no denying the dude created excitement, and Vols fans almost across the board bought in to the hype.
Sure, there are a lot of UT backers who are saying after the fact that "he was never a good fit" and "he was a punk," and those statements are true, but he had the fan base energized.
As for the state of the program, it's hard to think the Vols would not be far more talented this morning if Kiffin was at the midpoint of year three. Running back Bryce Brown likely would still be on the roster, and that would be a major upgrade in a position of dire need for UT. Safety Janzen Jackson -- for better or worse -- likely would still be on the roster, and we all know what he could bring to a secondary desperate for playmakers.
So would David Oku, Jerod Askew and possibly even Darren Myles. In fact, according to Rivals.com's rankings, seven of the top nine players in Kiffin's 2009 class are no longer on the roster.
Plus, there are the players that Kiffin might have landed. He and chief recruiter Ed Orgeron were on very good terms with all-world freshman defensive tackle Anthony Johnson, who has enjoyed a monster first year at LSU. And who knows how many more big-time prospects were on Kiffin's speed dial.
Talent-wise, the Vols would be in contention for an SEC title this year if Kiffin had stayed, since the SEC East is pretty mediocre and if you win the East, you are by definition contending for the title.
If Kiffin had stayed, would the Vols have the firepower for LSU or Bama? No, but remember, Kiffin took a collection of rejects, outcasts and Jonathan Crompton to Tuscaloosa two years ago and almost beat the eventual national champion.
The offense, with a healthy Tyler Bray -- whom Kiffin handpicked, by the way -- and Bryce Brown, would be noticeably better today if Kiffin still were calling his youngest son Knox and still on speaking terms with his brother-in-law.
That said, none of it would matter because the Vols would be so far in the NCAA doghouse it would take six weeks for light to get back there when the door opens. This summer of hand-wringing about Bruce Pearl and the basketball program would have been a tea party compared to the stress of a football investigation of Kiffin and Co., if Kiffin and Co. were still on UT's payroll.
In fact, here's saying that with the way Kiffin knowingly thumbed his nose at the NCAA during his eventful 13 months in Knoxville, the NCAA investigators may have looked at a couple of recent controversies and said:
* "What's happening at Ohio State? Really? Wow that's bad, but don't bother us right now: We're looking at Baby Face Kiffin."
* "Wow, Miami had a rogue booster give benefits to 70 or more players and refers to himself as the next Uncle Luke Skywalker? Really? That's trivial stuff compared to Al Capone Orgeron and the rest of the boys in K-town. Give OSU some secondary violations and make Miami sit some players; we've got real things to look into."
The despair of today is not relieved by thinking the Vols would be more talented and competitive if Kiffin had stayed. While the team may have been better, the program would have been far worse.
If Kiffin had stayed long enough to be forced out by the NCAA strong arms, the Vols' rebuilding process would be even more painful.