Tennessee Facing Uphill Battle in SEC

Donald FincherAnalyst IMay 26, 2009

NASHVILLE, TN - NOVEMBER 22:  Eric Berry #14 of the Tennessee Volunteers walks on the field during the game against the Vanderbilt Commodores at Vanderbilt Stadium on November 22, 2008 in Nashville, North Carolina.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

As someone who pays a lot of attention to the SEC, here is Tennessee's football situation from the perspective of someone who isn't wearing the rose tinted glasses of a homer.

Urban Meyer will probably not be at Florida for much longer but it won't matter.  Florida  is a top tier job now and, as such, they have shown that they can get great coaches to go along with their superior recruiting base. 

Spurrier dominated UT and Meyer has not lost to them at all (and this won't be the year either).  Even the Zooker broke even with UT at 2-2. 

If UT can't even post a winning record when Florida has their "worst" coach in the last two decades (seems like yesterday but Spurrier was indeed hired 19 years ago), don't look for UT to all of the sudden turn that around.

Similarly, Nick Saban has turned the Bama job back into a premier job.  UT reduced their deficit in the all-time series with Bama while they were on probation, but they aren't on probation anymore so they don't have to hire Mike Shula now. 

They can hire Nick Saban, and Alabama (even with Auburn getting a few crumbs in statewide recruiting) has more of a recruiting base than does Tennessee. 

Thus, even after Saban is gone, the recruits will continue and great coaches will land there.  Therefore, the days of winning a few in a row on Bama are now the stuff of good memories for UT fans.

And then there's Mark Richt who is 5-3 on UT since coming to UGA (and a field goal away a couple years ago from being 6-2 against them).  I don't see him leaving anytime soon and Georgia too has more of a recruiting base than does Tennessee.

This is combined with the fact that some years UT will have to play LSU, Spurrier has been able to win twice against UT at South Carolina, and Ole Miss and Arkansas (which rotate on UT's schedule per SEC cross-divisional guidelines) are both on the rise.  While Ole Miss hasn't had any success against UT in the recent past, Arkansas has.

To top this all off, UT tends to try to ward off the constant SEC critics who claim they don't play anyone outside of conference by trying to schedule a decent non-conference team.  That too has its share of dangers (UCLA anyone? Wyoming anyone?).

So now we know why UT has been averaging four or more losses per year for some time.  There are some structural challenges presented to them in their schedule, the level of coaching they're up against is high, the level of competition they must play is stellar, and there is a superiority in recruiting bases of the schools that populate their schedule. 

So, Tennessee fans have to hope that this coaching staff is a serious upgrade from the last one to overcome these built-in deficits that are the equivalent of rolling a boulder uphill. 

Given that Phil Fulmer was at one time among the winningest active coaches in the game and will probably be a hall of fame guy, how likely is that?  Doubtful in a general sense and especially doubtful with the current hire.

Lane Kiffin is just old enough to not be called a kid.  And, as Barry Switzer was known to say about folks like him, he was born on third base but yet he thinks he hit a triple.  He would not have gotten one job in football if his last name were Smith.  He has already shown many times in just four months how out of his league he really is.

UT needed a home run hire and Hamilton got nervous and took Kiffin instead when Clemson and others started making mid-season moves, because he was afraid of what he would end up with if he did what he really wanted; let Phil finish the year and not embarrass him with a mid-season firing. 

It was all unraveling so fast and Hamilton thought he needed to make a fast move.  UT fans will rue the day that he did that.

Yes, Kiffin brings his dad into the mix but think about that for a minute.  Defense was never the problem at UT.  Chavis always had a great defense.  That's why LSU hired him when he became available and LSU wasn't his only offer. 

Most NFL coaches don't set the woods on fire in college like everyone thinks they will.  But, even if he does do well, there just isn't that much room to go up on the defensive side.  So that's just not much of an upgrade.

UT will be lucky to be 7-5 next year and there will be very few years in the future that they reach 9-3 (before any bowl).  With the average season on Rocky Top being 8-4 for the foreseeable future, the question will be whether or not Hamilton (or his successor if it comes to that) will put up with the continued embarrassment and petulance that is Lane Kiffin for no more reward than it's going to be.

I'm not a hater and hope nobody else will be either, just offering an objective look at the landscape of the SEC.  I live in Florida and know some rabid UT fans (they are transplants here).  They have confided in me that they realize that Kiffin was an ill-advised hire and they are quite embarrassed at his representation of their alma mater. 

Somehow, though, I don't think people like them are the ones that are going to be tempted to comment on this article.  Please keep it real(istic) and civil.