Think Tennessee Vols fans are a little excited for the 2015 season? Consider a reported 40,000 showed up to observe practice Saturday per the Associated Press.
That’s more than nearly two-thirds of all the FBS programs averaged in home game attendance last year.
Forty-thousand showing up to fall camp practice isn’t excitement; that’s straight-up thirst.
And can you really blame the orange-clad legions for being thirstier than Max Rockatansky strapped to the front of a hot rod in the Outback?
One must go back to 2008 to find the last time buildup to a Vols football season generated the same kind of buzz precipitating now.
Coincidentally (or not), the 2008 season marked a turning point for the Vols. A trendy pick to win the SEC and national title that year, Tennessee tanked and never recovered.
Seven years languishing in mediocrity may not be a lot for most programs. However, in Tennessee, we’re talking a program that finished above .500 almost exclusive for a century.
When the Vols suffered back-to-back-to-back finishes on the wrong side of the W-L ledger from 2011 through 2013, they were in unprecedented territory.
The Vols are now trendy picks to win the SEC East, a milestone this one-time national powerhouse program hasn’t reached since 2007. Ostensibly, that means Tennessee is a trendy College Football Playoff pick.
Now, wait, you might interject. I haven’t seen a Playoff projection with Tennessee in the final four.
A valid point, hypothetical-question-asker. But consider what winning the SEC East means: A one-off opportunity at winning the SEC championship, which almost assuredly means a berth in the College Football Playoff.
Ergo, the Vols are trendy national championship picks heading into 2015, at least indirectly.
Before the 2014 season, I deemed Vols head coach Butch Jones’ rebuilding project was moving ahead of schedule. And, by finishing above .500 and winning its bowl game, Tennessee took a significant, tangible step back toward national respectability.
However, winning the SEC East would put the Vols far ahead of my own optimistic outlook for them in Jones’ third season.
There’s no doubt Jones has rectified a lot of the problems plaguing UT under Derek “Doolander” Dooley, most notably recruiting woes.
Jones has also brought stability to Knoxville, which the Vols lacked in the wake of Lane Kiffin’s NCAA-plagued one year at the helm.
Still, this coming season won’t even mark one full recruiting cycle since Jones reinvigorated Tennessee in that previously lagging department.
Moreover, the 2014 season proved UT has considerable ground to make up to reestablish itself among the nation’s elite.
Against marquee opponents Alabama, Oklahoma and Ole Miss, the Vols lost by a combined 69 points. That’s not so nice for a team seeking national title-level performance.
And, while the climb in the SEC East is significantly less steep, Tennessee is only better than the division’s front-runners on paper. UT lost to each of Florida, Georgia and Missouri, all by single digits.
Rival Georgia remains a taunting albatross, a team against which it’s repeatedly close-but-no-cigar. Back-to-back three-point losses under Jones is both an indicator of how close the Vols are, but can also become a mental block.
Tightening up against a rival that has long had its number certainly vexes the Vols when facing Florida, and last year’s confounding decision is the quintessential example.
For the 40,000 who attended practice Saturday, the pundits picking Tennessee to win the SEC East, and the guys inside the locker room, there’s plenty of reason to believe this is the year the bad taste lingering from 2008 is washed away. The Vols have thirst-quenchers in quarterback Josh Dobbs, running back Jalen Hurd, and — despite erroneous reports — wide receiver Marquez North.
Offense has long been Jones’ drink of choice, and the 2015 offense will be Tennessee’s best in his tenure. The maturation of the defense under coordinator John Jancek is still a “work in progress,” he told reporters this week.
Is he playing coy to temper the thirst of a parched throng, desperate for the Vols to finally break through? That may be the critical question determining Tennessee’s forecast in its continued march through college football’s desert.