Glory ... Tennessee
The second in a series
analyzing what went wrong for some of the former superpowers
to Fix ...
is a place that's always fancied itself as one of the elite superstars
of college football, and from time to time, it has been.
The Vols were the 1951 national champions, back when the title was given
before the bowl games, despite losing to Maryland in the Sugar Bowl. In
1997, before the BCS became the BCS as we know it now, the Vols, in
Peyton Manning's final game, got drilled in the Orange Bowl by Nebraska
in what was sort of a national title game, but wasn't, considering the
Rose Bowl wasn't on board yet. And then came 1998.
Tennessee had always been decent, winning 12 SEC titles before the 1998
season and being in the thick of the hunt in several other years, but it
hadn't been able to put together a wire-to-wire undefeated campaign like
it did it went on its fantastic national title run. Under the guidance
of QB Tee Martin, the Vols went 13-0, beating Florida State 23-16 in the
1999 Fiesta Bowl, and it seemed like the program was about to take off
and be a yearly powerhouse under head coach Phil Fulmer. This was
supposed to be the start of a run of national titles, or at least
When it came to bringing in NFL talent, Tennessee was peerless, and
Peerless, with players like Peerless Price, Al Wilson, Jamal Lewis,
Shaun Ellis, and of course, Peyton Manning, just a few of the star
talents from the 1990s talent factory. 71 players Tennessee players were
drafted from 1990 to 2000, and with some great recruiting classes, the
haul of next-level players was going to keep Tennessee rolling after
going 45-5 from 1995 to 1998. The fan base believes its team should be
at a national title level every year, so ...
What Went Wrong?
Ever since winning the 1999 Fiesta Bowl, Tennessee not only hasn't
been to a national championship, but it hasn't won an SEC title. It had
its chance in 2001, having upset Florida in Gainesville to win the East
for the right to play LSU for the SEC Championship. Despite facing a
backup quarterback, the Vols lost 31-20, went on to throttle Michigan in
the Citrus Bowl, instead of facing Miami in the Rose Bowl for the whole
ball of wax, and hasn't been close to national title status since. Three
things contributed to the slide.
1) A slight talent drop
No one cranks out pro prospects on a consistent basis like Tennessee
does. Since 1980, the Vols have had at least four players taken in 21
drafts, keeping the pro shelves stocked for several years. When
Tennessee was humming in the late 1990s, and was a true national title
contender every year, it had Manning guiding the way, won the national
title the first year after he left for the NFL, and then the recruiting
fell off slightly. Tennessee was still getting a ton of talent, but
instead of getting the best of the best recruiting classes, it began to
be ranked in the middle of the top 25 pack. For example, the 2002
recruiting class, which should've hit its stride in 2005, was
highlighted by James Banks and Gerald Riggs Jr. There was just enough of
a slip to be the difference between being an elite team, and being a
very good SEC squad.
2) The SEC got a whole bunch better
In the mid-to-late 1990s, Georgia was mediocre, Alabama was
inconsistent, LSU turned into a punching bag, and Auburn fell off the
map until 2000. The overall improvement in the league over the last
seven years has made it that much tougher to dominate on a consistent
basis, and it showed, as Tennessee (after the weekend of October 6th and
the win over Georgia) had gone 9-9 in its last 18 SEC games.
3) The loss of David Cutcliffe
Coach Cut was the offensive coordinator in 1992 to 1998, and was a main
reason for the national title, and the development of Peyton Manning. He
left for Ole Miss in 1998, and while the offense continued to be fine
under Randy Sanders, it started to struggle in 2005 (helped by injury
issues). Fired by Ole Miss, Cutcliffe joined back up as the offensive
head man, and last year, the attack started to shine again.
How To Fix It
First of all, there's one simple fact missing here: Outside of an
amazing 50-game stretch, Tennessee was never quite the juggernaut it's
been made out to be. Of course, winning the national title was a big
deal, and of course, there were several great seasons over the last 25
years to keep the program in the spotlight, but before the back-to-back
SEC championship years of 1997 and 1998, the previous SEC championship
was 1989. That means it's important to ...
1) Realize that things aren't as bad as they appear to be
If we can all agree that the SEC is the best conference in America on a
consistent basis, and if we can all agree that it's a nasty league full
of major landmines to negotiate through, then winning 70 games over an
eight year span since winning the national title (averaging 8.75 per
season) isn't anything to scoff at. Last year's team went 9-4, losing to
eventual national champion Florida by one, to a powerhouse of an LSU
team by four, and on a late fumble in the Outback Bowl to Penn State.
Even the disastrous 2005 season wasn't as bad as it appeared, losing to
two teams that finished with ten wins, a Florida team that finished 9-3,
and a Notre Dame team that went to the BCS. That's why it's always
important to for Tennessee to ...
2) Wait their turn
It's next to impossible to be at a national title level, or even a
league title level, every single year playing in a conference like the
SEC. It's easy to forget that LSU, for as good as it's been in recent
years, has only won two SEC titles since 1986. Auburn has been amazing
under Tommy Tuberville, but it's only won one SEC title since the league
came up with its championship game. It's hard to win the SEC title year
in and year out, and as long as there's some consistency in the talent
level, eventually, the turn comes up when everything breaks the right
way. That might be this year. If this isn't an SEC championship season,
then it might be time to ...
3) Start with a fresh coaching staff
Fulmer is in his 30th year at Tennessee, and is in his 16th year as the
head man. In SEC shelf-life, that's almost unheard of. He's never quite
been able to attain the status of a Steve Spurrier, Mark Richt, or Nick
Saban as a beloved head coach, occasionally getting hit with the Mack
Brown-like tag of being a great recruiter who doesn't do enough with the
talent. It's unfair. Going 140-43 (after the October 6th game) at a
place like Tennessee should earn god-like acclaim, but it hasn't been
there, and he's had to endure unnecessary criticisms over recent years.
If the Vols don't end up winning the SEC Championship, it might be time
for a fresh start all the way around, just to shake things up a bit, and
it might not come with Fulmer being fired. There's a chance he could
simply end up saying he's had enough if things get sour.
This is Tennessee. It's an elite program with all the pieces in place to
win a national title again in a big hurry if the right coach comes
along. If Alabama, with all the problems it had in its search, could get
Saban, then Tennessee should also be able to get a superstar to take
over, if this actually is the end of Fulmer's run.