Wiedmer: A UT season to be remembered for the wrong reasons

University of Tennessee's Justin Martin (8) walks off the field following the Vols 24-42 loss to the Commodores Saturday, Nov. 25, 2017 at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tenn.
photo University of Tennessee interim coach Brady Hoke runs off the field at halftime during the University of Tennessee game against Vanderbilt Saturday, Nov. 25, 2017 at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tenn.

KNOXVILLE - So much for this 121st Tennessee football season not being memorable. Instead, thanks to Saturday's 42-24 loss to Vanderbilt, it will be long remembered for all the wrong reasons.

For instance, no longer can the Volunteers claim to be one of only two major college football powers - the other being The Ohio State University - to have never lost as many as eight games in a single season.

The Commodores, equally 4-7 overall and 0-7 within the Southeastern Conference at the start of this one, made sure of that by scoring 40 or more points against the Vols in consecutive seasons for the first time ever. VU won 45-34 a year ago in Nashville.

Beyond that, also for the first time in UT history, the Vols end the season with zero SEC wins. And they've been proud members of that storied league since it was formed in 1932.

Then there are those 24 points the Big Orange scored against VU in defeat. None of the Commodores' seven other SEC foes had scored fewer than 34, and five had totaled 44 or more.

So in some ways, and perhaps this is a good thing, no matter whom the school hires to become its next head coach in the days or weeks to come, the Vols have nowhere to go but up.

Like it or not, the Big Aren't clearly was the weakest team in the SEC this season. That's right. THE worst. And by a fairly wide margin.

That shouldn't necessarily be enough to scare away coaching candidates. As both senior linebacker Colton Jumper and senior defensive lineman Kendal Vickers noted afterward, "There's a lot of talent here."

But perceived struggles might be enough to make the Jon Grudens of the coaching world wonder whether they have the time or energy to tackle such a reclamation project.

"It's a good job," interim coach Brady Hoke said when asked what should appeal to UT coaching candidates. "It's one of those good jobs in college football."

A good job. Not a great job, which it should be, given Neyland Stadium's 102,455 seats. And fairly rich history, including that 1998 national championship. And the passion it engenders throughout the Volunteer State, or Big Orange Nation, should you prefer that moniker for our nation's 16th state.

No, Hoke - a former head coach at Michigan - called it a very good job before settling on "a good job."

If that hurts Volniacs the region over, so be it. When you haven't been to a top-tier bowl since 1999, when you haven't won your conference since 1998 and haven't so much as won the SEC East since 2007, reality bites.

That's also where the UT football program finds itself today, however. It's a good program in a season in which several conceivably better jobs - Florida, Texas A&M (perhaps) and Auburn (should Gus Malzahn bolt the Tigers for Arkansas) - could push UT to the back of the coaching openings line in the SEC alone.

Yes, hiring Gruden could change everything. But the players made available to the media after this loss didn't exactly paint the picture of a program ready to explode on the national scene a year from now because of a change at the top.

Vickers, one of the finest leaders on and off the field the program has had in years, talked of next year's team needing to "buy in," regardless of the hire, as if this team never quite bought in to now-ousted Butch Jones during this, his fifth and final season.

A more defiant redshirt freshman quarterback Jarrett Guarantano said "the culture's going to change. If they (returning players) don't like it, they can leave."

Said freshman offensive lineman Trey Smith, arguably the team's best returning player: "It's time for everybody to keep each other accountable."

It's time to put this season to bed for good, as Smith also said. It's time to accept that for whatever reason - untimely injuries, bad coaching, poor playing, bad luck, bad bounces, all or several of those - 2017 became quite possibly the worst football season in UT history for more than its school-record eight losses against four defeats.

A new coach almost assuredly will help. A new attitude because of that coach might help more. A far healthier roster might help the most.

So, too, might a grudging acceptance by the Big Orange Nation that patience will not only be a virtue at the moment first-year UT athletic director John Currie announces the next UT coach, but a necessity.

"It just wasn't a fun place to be around all the way around," Guarantano said of the Vols football program these past two or three months.

That may be the one observation, if the only observation, that everyone in the Big Orange Nation - player, coach, administrator or fan - can agree upon at the close of the most disagreeable UT football season ever.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com