Tennessee fans are eternal optimists during the offseason. From the minute one season ends, predictions for the next begin. Those predictions become expectations, which become higher and higher as time goes on. Just before a new season kicks off, those expectations reach a fever pitch, hitting levels that are impossible to live up to.
This season was no different. In fact, it was even worse than usual.
The Vols were clearly talented, but they had some flaws that would limit their ceiling. Despite that, the hype for the season reached seemingly impossible levels. That hype was concentrated in a single phrase, a sort of war cry for Tennessee fans everywhere: “Feels like ‘98”. It meant that, somehow, the 2016 season felt like 1998, the last time the Vols won a National Championship. Now, after a slew of injuries, some ugly play and a handful of losses, it doesn’t really feel like ’98 anymore.
In fact, it never really did.
The main reason fans were excited about this particular team was a simple one — talent. Butch Jones proved his ability as a recruiter early during his tenure in Knoxville, and the members of those recruiting classes were finally upperclassmen, ready to live up to their immense potential.
There was reason to be optimistic in that respect — players like Jalen Hurd, Derek Barnett, Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Cameron Sutton had already proven themselves to be stars, and they were all ready to lead Tennessee to heights it hadn’t seen in years. Of course, three of those four guys are either injured or no longer with the program. Even if they stayed healthy and on the team, however, it likely wouldn’t have been enough.
There were too many questions about the team, particularly on the offensive end. The offense that Jones and offensive coordinator Mike DeBord put together was predictable and bland, led by players that weren’t the best fits. Running Hurd out of the shotgun formation in a spread offense was like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole — Hurd was talented enough to make it work, but it just wasn’t the right fit. Quarterback Josh Dobbs is a cult hero and a talented runner, but he was never a great passer, and that should have been enough to create concern for Vol fans.
The offense wasn’t the only issue, either. The defense was led by some very talented players, but there were some concerns. In the absence of Sutton due to a broken bone in his foot, it has become clear that the rest of the secondary is flawed. Even if Sutton stayed healthy, the rest of the secondary would still have had problems, though they would’ve been smaller.
Besides, Tennessee was breaking in a new defensive coordinator. Bob Shoop is a great defensive mind and had plenty of talent to work with, but there was always likely to be a learning curve. The defensive schemes haven’t changed drastically under Shoop, but it always takes some time to adjust.
Even special teams — perhaps the best-returning unit from last year’s team — hasn’t been without its problems. Kicker Aaron Medley was the team’s weakest returning starter and had no history of confidence-inspiring play. Punter Trevor Daniel and the return game were both bright spots last year, but neither is a major part of a football game — even if the punter and returners managed to keep up their high level of play, it wouldn’t be enough to cover the rest of the team’s flaws.
In the very first game of the season — a Thursday night game against Appalachian State — the Vols proved that they weren’t going to be the team fans had hoped for. Still, as long as Tennessee kept winning, everyone could keep saying that it felt like ’98. A somewhat convincing win over rival Florida to move to 4-0 just added fuel to the fire. It wasn’t until a dispiriting loss to South Carolina to end a three-game skid that fans truly fell off the bandwagon.
It may hurt some fans to hear this, but it’s true — this team was never good enough to win a national championship. There were too many flaws in both the players and the coaching staff. An SEC East title isn’t out of the question, but that was always likely to be the ceiling for this team. To put it simply, it never felt like ’98.
Edited by Adam Milliken
Featured image by Ruth Dudley, courtesy of Tennessee Athletics