With preseason hype at its highest level in more than a decade, it’s hard to imagine 2016 not going well for Tennessee. Yet with history as a backdrop, it could happen. As a matter of fact, it already did.
No, I’m not talking about a slightly disappointing nine-win regular season for the Vols, who are ranked ninth in The Associated Press preseason poll. For a reasonable fan, that still would be an acceptable season. A bowl win would give the Vols 10 victories for the first time since 2007. Not too shabby, and it would continue to show consistent improvement under Butch Jones even if there’s no championship hardware to display.
But that type of season wouldn't come close to the success most fans want, which, at the very least, includes a win over Florida, 10 regular-season victories, a berth in the SEC championship game and maybe even an invitation to the College Football Playoff.
There will be a team this season with high expectations, probably ranked in the preseason top 10, which will fall mightily. It happened to Tennessee in 2005.
That team had plenty of star power. It had five players drafted by the NFL following the season, led by defensive back Jason Allen, who was selected 16th overall.
Tennessee was ranked No. 3 in the 2005 preseason poll and expected to compete for a national title. That didn't even come close to happening. The season began inauspiciously in a 17-10 win over UAB. The Vols then lost to Florida 16-7 two weeks later.
The Vols were fighting to get back into the SEC East race after the setback against the Gators, and a 30-27 overtime win at LSU made them seem like contenders again. The Vols next beat Ole Miss, then lost to Georgia, which essentially ended any championship hopes. The Vols showed heart in a 6-3 loss to Alabama that they could have won if not for turnovers. A loss to South Carolina the following week knocked Tennessee out of the polls for good.
Then came the heart-breaker, a 28-24 loss to Vanderbilt -- the first loss to Vandy since 1982. In a heart-wrenching scene, offensive coordinator Randy Sanders was seen emotionally embracing his family. He'd eventually resign after the 5-6 season.
So what caused perhaps the most colossal collapse in Tennessee football history?
Injuries always are a factor in those situations. Allen, running back Gerald Riggs and offensive lineman Arron Sears were hurt at different points of the season.
The biggest factor, though, was the revolving door at quarterback. According to one unnamed player on that team, most of the players wanted Rick Clausen to be the starter. There was one problem: Then-coach Phillip Fulmer saw superb talent in Erik Ainge and Fulmer had built a successful career on talent. While Clausen completed 57.4 percent of his passes for a 119.1 passer rating in 2005, Ainge completed 45.5 percent of his passes for a 89.9 passer rating.
Stats told just part of the story. The team was split and played like it. Game plans often were changed late in the week despite hours of work that had gone into them.
What can Tennessee's staff and fan base learn from this brief history?
For starters, don't get caught up in hype. Mistakes and injuries can and will happen. Second, don't put too much into one game, even the Florida game. Third, feel confident that Tennessee has a senior quarterback with no strong threat behind him. Last, this is Jones' team and his offense. There won't be any late-week tinkering.
The leadership on this year's team makes it seem un-collapsible. Anything is possible, but my prediction is this: a 10-2 regular season with one of those losses coming to Alabama, then another one coming to the Tide in the SEC championship game.
If the Vols happen to win the SEC championship game and make it to the playoff? Jones' coaching staff has proven adept when it has time to prepare. The Vols have dominated both bowl games they’ve played in under Jones. If Tennessee can make it into the playoff, it'll play well. The Vols may even win it.
Tennessee fans have waited long enough. This fall, they'll finally receive the season they deserve.
(You can follow Dave Hooker on Twitter @TheDaveHooker)
© 2016, Dave Hooker. All rights reserved.
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