KNOXVILLE -- After four Southeastern Conference football games a year ago, the Tennessee Volunteers stood 0-4 in league play, having been outscored by a total of 65 points. After four SEC games this season, UT is 1-3, its scoring deficit in those contests 50 points to the bad.
That's likely the first reason most Big Orange fans would give for feeling better about the future of the program under first-year coach Butch Jones than the man he replaced, Derek Dooley.
And that's a pretty good reason. Especially when one considers that the Vols head into Saturday's game at No. 10 Missouri having already faced the nation's No. 1 and No. 2 teams in Alabama and Oregon, as well as a Georgia team ranked sixth when UT faced it, a Florida squad ranked 19th and a South Carolina team ranked No. 11.
No wonder Jones is prone to say, as he did on Monday, "We're going through the toughest schedule in the country."
Not everyone agrees with the Big Orange boss. USA Today's Jeff Sagarin -- whose rankings are used in the BCS formula -- actually ranks the Vols' foes No. 5 overall with Georgia's bruised and battered Bulldogs owning the nation's toughest schedule.
Yet unless a bowl matchup changes the equation, Tennessee will be the only team in the land to have faced both the Crimson Tide and the Ducks, who are currently slotted for the BCS title game after Sunday's rankings.
Still, what should impress the Big Orange Nation at least as much as the Vols' improvement on the field is something Jones noted concerning the team's off-field demands.
In explaining why no players would attend Monday's weekly media event, Jones said, "Today is an unusual academic workload, so most of our players have exams, midterms, papers, so there won't be any players here. It is not by design, so we will make sure tomorrow you will get what you need from media standpoint. It is just one of those days where the players that were available had academics."
It's not exactly what any media type wants to hear, and the UT brass might have done a better job of making this clear before the usual 30 or 40 sports writers and broadcasters drove to Neyland Stadium to interview the head coach only.
But in the bigger, more important picture -- the education of these STUDENT-athletes, as the NCAA so often reminds us -- postponing media demands for schoolwork is both right and refreshing. Whether most fans really appreciate such things, this is what should separate the best programs from the rest, though it too rarely works that way.
Imagine the recruiting advantage Jones can build if parents can truly trust that the UT coaching staff puts academics first, as many Cincinnati administrators promise was always the case when Jones coached the Bearcats.
Imagine a football program that wins with integrity both on and off the field within the most powerful conference in the land.
That's Jones' vision, and his determination not to bend those principles becomes more apparent weekly.
This is not to blindly praise every move he's made. On the field, his decision not only to start Nate Peterman at quarterback at Florida but stubbornly to stay with him when he was obviously flustered may yet cost the Vols a bowl bid.
Then there was last week's "red team" motivational ploy against the Crimson Tide. It's impossible to praise Jones for his academic standards and not wonder how any bright, disciplined, determined team couldn't figure out that the "red team" it was playing was Alabama. And if it couldn't, you'd have to question whether these guys are smart enough to play major college football.
At the same time, can we please do away with the mindset that had Bama quarterback AJ McCarron's whining about feeling disrespected by the "red team" tag? This whole disrespect thing is getting as old as leisure suits and eight-track tapes.
It's all enough to make you long for the days when coaching legends such as Bear Bryant and Vince Dooley could make a date with Western Mid-South State Teachers College sound like they were facing the Green Bay Packers just three days before they'd go out and win 55-3.
Yet whatever his few mistakes, Jones has done far more right than wrong two-thirds into his first season.
Or as the coach himself noted Monday with words that should make every Big Orange fan proud: "Am I disappointed [in the loss to Bama]? Absolutely, because I expect to win every football game, and as I told you, I'm extremely impatient, but we're not going to take any short cuts. We're going to do it right."
If Jones is still nobly practicing what he preaches four years from now, the wins far outnumbering the losses, opponents may start labeling the Vols that "orange team," hopefully to similarly negative results.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org