This is not fun. Or easy. Or going away soon.
After the inexplicable loss to Kentucky -- a struggling team that put a wideout at quarterback and ran the same five to seven plays for three hours -- left the Tennessee Volunteers at 5-7 for 2011. You know this.
That means no bowl game. That means back-to-back losing seasons, something that has not happened in a hundred years of UT football. That means a winning streak over the Wildcats that had survived since the Reagan administration is over.
After Saturday, the knowns and the unknowns of the status of the Vols program are far-reaching.
- The Vols are a bottom-tier SEC program. They were super-pumped to beat Vanderbilt and then lost to Kentucky. That's not Ole Miss bad, but it's bottom tier. The backslide has taken on a secret level of despair once you realize that what used to be viewed as an expectation -- beating Vandy or UK or even getting to a bowl -- is now viewed as an accomplishment.
- The Vols are not even the best of the bottom tier, regardless of whether you stack the SEC in halves or thirds. In halves it would be (in order) LSU, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, South Carolina, Auburn and then Florida, Mississippi State, Vandy, Kentucky, UT, Ole Miss. In thirds, it's LSU, Bama, Arkansas and Georgia at the big boy table; Auburn, South Carolina, Florida and Mississippi State in the next group; followed by Vandy, Kentucky, Tennessee and Ole Miss.
That last group has one team that is bowl-eligible and one team that won Saturday with a wideout at quarterback. Neither is Tennessee.
- While the talent will be a year more experienced and the roster deeper next fall, how much better is it going to be? Is eight wins possible? Sure, but that seems to be the ceiling, and how far have UT's expectations plummeted if eight wins is the perceived high-water mark (and, remember, 2012 is the season that this program has been building toward for the last three years).
- What is to be made of Tyler Bray? Is he a legitimate big-time quarterback? Is he a talented head case? Is he some of both? The facts show a guy who had a lot of success throwing the football to two future NFL receivers (Da'Rick Rogers and Justin Hunter) against less-than-NFL-caliber opponents in the first month of the season before getting hurt.
The facts show that Bray as the starter is 4-3 against SEC opponents (wins last year against Ole Miss, Vandy and Kentucky and a 2011 win against Vandy). The facts also show a guy who was less than good Saturday and led an offense that managed one touchdown against a Kentucky team that allowed 38 points to Vandy and 14 to Jacksonville State.
Was Bray's thumb to blame for his horrid showing against Kentucky? That's a very plausible theory, but how would you finish this sentence, "You know Tyler Bray's a good quarterback because he beat _"? (If Cincinnati's your answer, well, OK, but that's not overly inspiring.)
- Heading into a crucial recruiting season, the questions are too numerous to name -- from Derek Dooley's long-term job security to serious concerns about halftime adjustments to claims that players didn't want to be on the field to who will remain on UT's staff to what happened to the bevy of NFL-caliber linemen who used to be a UT staple. There's one looming issue, though, that will be tough to face for Johnny Vols Fans everywhere: Which SEC program has the least amount of momentum and buzz right now?
LSU and Bama are the class of college football. Arkansas and South Carolina are at their peaks as SEC members. Auburn won the BCS in 2010, and Georgia will be fully stocked as the East favorite next fall and could be positioned for a possible run to bigger things. Florida's struggles with a first-year coach and a defense loaded with sophomores at least offer some optimistic angles. Vandy is working on an extension for first-year coach James Franklin, who just guided the Commodores to their fifth bowl game in program history.
That leaves UT, Kentucky, Ole Miss and Mississippi State in the bottom of the buzz barrel. Mississippi State took a step back in 2011, but that was after finishing 15th in the country in 2010. Ole Miss is in limbo, but the right coaching hire could create a lot of talk around the Rebels. That leaves UT and UK, and, well, Saturday sealed that, didn't it?
Certainly blocking and tackling are far more important concerns than buzzing and trending for a college football coach -- especially one with as many problems to fix as Dooley has.
But Dooley is certainly smart enough to know that there are two ways for college programs to attract attention and buzz -- winning or changing the regime.
And when the former doesn't happen, the latter almost always does.
Contact Jay Greeson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6273.