HOOVER — To call Tennessee a program stuck in neutral wouldn’t be completely inaccurate.
Three years in a row, the once-proud Volunteers have gone 5-7. They haven’t won more than seven games since 2007, when they went 10-4 and lost in the SEC Championship Game to LSU. Unbelievable as it may seem, the last time Tennessee brought home an SEC title was 1998 — the same year it won its last national championship, the first season of the BCS era.
And things aren’t going to get any easier this year, as the Vols have a rigorous non-conference schedule featuring three teams that won at least eight games in Utah State, Arkansas State and Oklahoma. Of course, that’s on top of a Southeastern Conference slate that always presents a stiff test.
Then there are doubts about the complexion of this year’s team, which has yet to identify its starting quarterback, has to replace its entire offensive and defensive lines and must make up for the lost production of its leading rusher from last year.
If nothing else, Butch Jones has optimism.
“I like where this football team is right now,” the Tennessee coach said during his appearance at SEC Media Days on Tuesday. “Looking forward to starting spring practice on Aug. 1. Quite simply, it’s going to be how fast we can jump the learning curve.”
Every position where there's a question, Jones believes there’s an answer.
Start with the exodus of the interior lines. While it’s an unenviable undertaking, Jones quickly rattled off names he expected to fill those gaps.
On the offensive line, that consisted of Marcus Jackson, Mack Crowder, Coleman Thomas and Dontavius Blair.
“This is a group that has worked exceptionally hard,” Jones said, “and they’re going to have a tremendous opportunity in front of them.”
Defensively, Jones praised Jordan Williams and Curt Maggitt as the key pieces of the rebuilt defensive line.
At running back, senior Marlin Lane now gets his chance to be the lead back. He’ll have to hold off five-star early enrollee Jalen Hurd, who Jones had no problem lauding Tuesday.
“Jalen has really done a great job in the weight room. He’s really sacrificed a lot of things in terms of his eating habits, his rest his recovery (but) his body has taken off,” the coach said. “For a 6-(foot)-3 stature, he can get the tough yards, but he has the elusiveness to make a defender miss at the second level.”
But what of the first-string quarterback, which is still an unknown?
Riley Ferguson, one of the top contenders for the job, made the decision to transfer last month. With Justin Worley, Nathan Peterman and Joshua Dobbs still around, however, Jones thinks the Vols possess a solid trio of candidates.
“There is no timetable to naming a starter,” Jones said. “I want them to compete as much as possible because I think competition is healthy.”
Jones is under no illusion, though. He knows that it remains a work in progress. But remember, he has optimism in abundance.
With that, he noted if his team comes together quickly — especially its highly touted 2014 recruiting class — it could surprise people this fall.
“(The incoming freshman) take great pride and onus in having that upon their shoulder shoulders — of getting Tennessee back to its rightful place among the elite of college football.”