Given the lingering sting of their 51-44 loss at Georgia and their 0-2 start in SEC play, it’s easy to understand why Volunteer fans might be ready to throw in the towel on the 2012 season.
But, it’s important to keep both the loss and the long term prospects of Tennessee football in proper perspective.
Yes, this is an experienced team that ranked among the Top Five programs in the land in terms of returning starters and depth. And OK, wins over NC State (now 3-2), FCS Georgia State and Akron aren’t exactly worth throwing a parade for…but pulling back the layers and looking under the surface we see more signs for hope than for despair.
Indeed, at 0-2 in the SEC East the Vols won’t be traveling to the Georgia Dome to play in the 2012 SEC title game, but saying “next year” in reference to Tennessee is more than dunking a hopeful penny in the football wishing well.
First off, you’ve got that fact that QB Tyler Bray will be a senior in 2013.
This is a guy who is very close to eclipsing his numbers as a freshman and sophomore through just five games of his junior campaign.
Bray is 118 of 193 for 1,582 yards, 14 TDs and only three picks and will only mature through yet another relentless SEC slate this year.
Secondly, you’ve got WR Cordarrelle Patterson due back at receiver next season.
Patterson has 21 grabs for 290 yards and two scores thus far in 2012, not bad for his first campaign as a starter. Patterson is a talented athlete who’s skills and relationship with Bray ought to just mature with age.
Next you’ve got the very substantial bonus of yet another generous helping of returning starters. Eight are expected to be back in 2013 from an offense that ranked No. 24 in scoring coming into Week 5, and then nine are due back on a defense that has room for improvement and time to get there.
After that there is the plus that if, and that’s a big if, Derek Dooley can win enough games to hold on to his job for another year, it will be a stabilizing factor that only coaching continuity could bring.
Using the “things are definitely improving” approach might actually make a strong argument for Dooley to stay, regardless of how much it hurts.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, Tennessee is a program that has recruited lights out the last several years.
Per Rivals.com the Volunteers recruiting classes have ranked No. 10, No. 9, No. 13 and No. 17 respectively from 2009-12.
These numbers are right up there with the likes of Florida, Georgia, Oklahoma, Michigan, Ohio State, Oregon and LSU and are a concrete sign that this is a program that is on the verge of something big.
When the pundits yap about recruiting being the “pulse of college football” they are speaking the truth. You can’t, and won’t win the SEC without top rated recruiting classes, and this is a box that the Vols have ticked off in grand fashion.
Strong indicators show that the Volunteers may just be one of those programs who are mere months away of reaching the shores of winning that now seems millions of miles away.
And “winning” for Tennessee means capturing its first SEC East crown since 2007 and its first full-fledged SEC championship since winning both the conference and the national title in 1998.
To illustrate, look back to Clemson, a team that looked like they would be searching for a new coach and a fresh direction after going 6-7 in 2010. But, they retained the services of Dabo Swinney for one more season and ultimately went 10-3 and earned a berth to the Orange Bowl.
The record included their first ACC-Atlantic title since 2009 and their first conference crown since 1991.
Though it might be tough for Vols fans to sleep soundly after missing out on several opportunities to score a comeback win vs. No. 5 Georgia, Tennessee fans need to hold on tight and practice patience because glory truly might be just around the corner.
And this is a claim that actually has a lot of meat on the bone.