It's hard to believe, but Tennessee football, by all accounts, is ranked lower than ever in its storied history, no better than 13th out of 14 Southeastern Conference teams. The only other team predicted to clearly finish below UT is Kentucky.
In fact, the only other two teams on the 2013 schedule that the Vols are predicted to clearly beat are South Alabama, which didn't even have a team until recently, and NCAA Division II Austin Peay. Even Western Kentucky, coached now by former SEC coach Bobby Petrino, is ranked higher than the Big Orange.
If you take most of the media's preseason predictions at face value, UT will wind up with a 3-9 record. Many are predicting Auburn to be the surprise team of the SEC. Unfortunately, their new coach, Gus Malzahn, will be out to win a big game on the road in Knoxville. Missouri may be not much better than UT, but Tennessee has to play them on the road in their first-ever trip to their stadium.
New Tennessee Head Football Coach Butch Jones and his staff have been winners and champions everywhere they've been, albeit on a much smaller stage than the SEC. However, their recruiting so far has put UT at the top of the heap for the 2014 incoming class—Jones' first full class since his hiring on The Hill.
However, the Vols lose so many experienced players after this upcoming season, they will be mostly a freshman team in 2014, so it will be a long road back to the top if Jones ever gets UT there. We know nothing of his coaching abilities at this level, which is the toughest league in the nation by far, as evidenced by all of the national championships that have been won by SEC schools, which shows no signs of abating in the future.
Some are predicting South Carolina to win the SEC Eastern Division. They come to Knoxville. Some have even suggested that Vanderbilt could finish as high as 2nd or 3rd in the SEC East. Certainly Florida and Georgia will be better than the Vols in terms of raw talent and experienced coaching, too.
It has been some time since UT has won an SEC game on the road. They may have to wait until the last game of the season in Lexington for that to occur.
With a couple of big upsets, Jones might be able to finish the regular season with a 6-6 record and win a minor bowl game for a 7-6 overall record. If he does that, he will have accomplished far more than Dooley ever did in his three nightmarish years.
Most Vols will be happy with a 7-6 outcome this year, 8-5 in 2014, and 9-4 by Jones' third season. Slow, steady improvement is all long-suffering Tennessee fans can hope for now.
All who have met Jones, including me, are impressed by his humble nature and his strong work ethic. He has certainly made former lettermen and donors feel appreciated again, and he seems to value the traditions of excellence that have marked the program since General Neyland reigned supreme in building a national dynasty in football.
Jones may have to get some better assistants on his staff that have more SEC experience over time, but he at least appears to be on the right track to laying a better foundation than the Vols had under Dooley.
Championships and Tennessee football were synonymous for decades. This has been the longest drought without one in UT's history. Whether Jones can achieve that, as he did in the minor leagues, is still an open question.
It's hard for most Vol fans to accept that they might not be playing in Atlanta until late 2016 at the earliest, but that may be the fate handed to them. Certainly a rocky road is ahead on Rocky Top.
UT Chancellor Jimmy Cheek and UT Athletics Director Dave Hart appear to be in their final jobs before retirement. They have staked their professional reputations on putting Tennessee's fortunes in Jones' hands. If he doesn't get Tennessee football back on top in four years, the entire administration may be on its way out, with a whole new group of leaders in its place.