KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Coach Butch Jones opens his fifth spring football session at Tennessee today having returned the Vols to the Top 25 ranks after taking over a struggling program on Dec. 7, 2012.
Tennessee is coming off consecutive 9-4 seasons, and the program has won three straight bowl games for the first time since Peyton Manning was quarterbacking the Vols in the mid-1990s.
So why isn’t everyone in Knoxville smiling?
Because Tennessee is looking for its first SEC East Division crown and SEC championship game appearance since 2007, when first-ballot College Football Hall of Fame coach Phillip Fulmer was running the show.
Lane Kiffin failed miserably in his only season in Knoxville, going 7-6 and committing violations that led to the program being on probation through 2014 and dealing with recruiting sanctions that continue to affect the roster.
Derek Dooley followed Kiffin and couldn’t get things turned around in his three seasons, failing to reach the postseason while going 1-14 against SEC teams in the two years before Jones took over.
That has led to a lot of pent-up frustration and fallout that Jones has had to deal with.
Tennessee football on-field performance
SEC standing: 3rd over the past two seasons
Only Alabama and Florida have won more games than Tennessee over the past two seasons, and there’s not another team in the league that can match the Vols’ 3-game active bowl win streak.
Tennessee scored one of the SEC’s better out-of-conference wins during the regular season last year, beating ACC Coastal Division champ Virginia Tech by a 45-24 count in the “Battle at Bristol.”
The largest crowd to ever attend a football game saw the Vols live up to their preseason hype before injuries and attrition would take a toll in October and November.
Tennessee football recruiting
SEC standing: Near the top
2017 rank: 7th
Tennessee landed ESPN’s No. 1-ranked recruit in the 2017 class, offensive tackle Trey Smith.
It was a tough get for Jones, as Smith grew up an Alabama fan, and his hometown of Jackson, Tenn., is actually closer to Tuscaloosa (227 miles) than Knoxville (307 miles).
The Vols also landed the state’s No. 5-ranked recruit (tailback Ty Chandler) and the nation’s No. 6 safety (Maleik Gray).
Two local prospects, however, were lured to national champion Clemson.
Receiver Amari Rodgers is the son of 1998 Vols national championship QB Tee Martin, while receiver Tee Higgins, from nearby Oak Ridge, also picked the Tigers despite Tennessee’s desperate need for impact players at the position.
Tennessee football player development
SEC standing: 6th in the SEC
Tennessee had six players invited to the NFL combine this season, which ranked sixth-best in the SEC.
If five SEC teams had more players invited to the NFL combine, why were the Vols picked to win the East Division, some wondered.
To boot, two of those players — linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin and cornerback Cam Sutton — missed the crux of the season for Tennessee with injuries.
Josh Dobbs blossomed from a Georgia high school quarterback with only two other SEC offers — Arkansas and Mississippi State — to a Senior Bowl invitee and NFL prospect.
Tennessee took in a player in Alvin Kamara who could not last in Alabama’s program and went through the junior college ranks, and developed Kamara into a multipurpose threat out of the backfield.
Tennessee football facilities
SEC standing: At or near the top of the SEC
Elite facilities have been part of Tennessee’s athletics recruiting strategy since Bob Woodruff took over as athletic director in the early 1960s (through 1985).
New athletic director John Currie will oversee the first phase of yet another renovation of historic Neyland Stadium, a project expected to cost more than $100 million.
Tennessee’s indoor facility and 22,000-square foot, multi-level weight room are also among the best in the nation.
Tennessee football coaching
SEC standing: At or near the top of the SEC
Jones has won as many or more games from one regular season to the next at each of his three FBS stops over the past 10 years.
Tennessee fans are anxious for another SEC East Division title, but the Vols are now back to recruiting to a Top 25 program, and top prospects like the idea of seeing coaching stability in Knoxville like there hasn’t been since Fulmer was at the helm.
Jones impressed the program’s major boosters by landing elite assistant coaches each of the past two seasons in the form of defensive coordinator Bob Shoop and new defensive line coach Brady Hoke.
Last year’s offense set a school record for points and touchdowns in a single season.