A Decade in Review: Tennessee Volunteers Football

Oh, what a decade it was to be a Tennessee Volunteers football fan. And not in the good way.

It was a decade full of misery on Ole Rocky Top, broken up only by a few bowl wins and 5-star recruits committing to play for the Big Orange. As Vols fans know, this decade was defined by coaching malpractice, which was capped off by the Greg Schiano fiasco in 2017, which we’ll talk about more a little later. I think they’ve settled in a place with Jeremy Pruitt that at least got them out of the basement of the SEC, but a decade of mismanagement takes a while to undo.

I had the “privilege” to be a student at Tennessee in the Butch Jones era, and looking back at how excited this fan base was about the red-faced man from Michigan who coined the phrase “Brick by Brick” is both depressing and funny at the same time. But enough of focusing on the negative. It’s time to look back at each season in the last 10 years and remember the simpler times. Let’s talk about the Orange Pants.

2010 (6-7, 3-5 SEC)

Leading Passer: Tyler Bray (1,849)

Leading Rusher: Tauren Poole (1,034)

Leading Receiver: Denarius Moore (981)

INT Leader: Janzen Jackson (5)

Sack Leader: Malik Jackson (5)

Bowl Game: Music City Bowl (L vs. UNC 30-27)

January 12, 2010 will be a date that haunts Vols fans for a long time. That’s the day Lane Kiffin decided to head west and take the head coaching job at USC after spending just one season with the Vols. Kiffin had led the Vols to a 7-5 record, but more importantly had improved the offense by a significant amount. Kiffin had also been able to bring in 5-star talent and utilize them as freshman (see Bryce Brown). The Vols seemed to be on the right track after the retirement of Phillip Fulmer.

And then Kiffin left. It left the university scrambling to find a replacement and caused many of the high end recruits to decommitt from Tennessee. They ended up settling on Derek Dooley, who had spent three seasons as the head coach of Louisiana Tech. Dooley was thrust into a tough spot, but was able to make it to the Music City Bowl in his first season. The most memorable game from this season, unfortunately, was the Week 5 game against LSU, or maybe you remember it as the “too many men on the field” game. The Vols were up 14-10 against the No. 12 Tigers, and seemingly got the stop at the end of the game to get the win. But a too many men on the field penalty gave the Tigers another chance, and they capitalized. What could have been Dooley’s signature win turned into a punchline. Pretty much sums up Dooley’s time with the Vols.

2011 (5-7, 1-7 SEC)

Leading Passer: Tyler Bray (1,983)

Leading Rusher: Tauren Poole (693)

Leading Receiver: Da’Rick Rogers (1,040)

INT Leader: Austin Johnson (4)

Sack Leader: Malik Jackson (2.5)

Bowl Game: N/A

The Vols started the 2011 campaign on a high note, beating Montana and Cincinnati by a combined score of 87-39. Their win streak came to an end in Week 3 against Florida in the Swamp, losing to the No. 17 team in the country 33-23. A particularly strong year in the SEC led to only one conference win for the Vols, coming against Vanderbilt in overtime. With bowl eligibility on the line, the Vols lost in Lexington, 10-7. It was the first time since 1984 that the Wildcats had beaten the Vols, and it led to an offseason full of doubt for Vols’ fans.

2012 (5-7, 1-7 SEC)

Leading Passer: Tyler Bray (3,612)

Leading Rusher: Rajion Neal (708)

Leading Receiver: Justin Hunter (1,083)

INT Leader: Byron Moore (5)

Sack Leader: Darrington Sentimore (4)

Bowl Game: N/A

This season still hurts Vols fans to think about. The amount of NFL talent this offense should have at least led to a bowl game. Tyler Bray, Cordarrelle Paterson, Justin Hunter, Mychal Rivera all ended up playing multiple years on Sundays.

The season once again started well with wins against NC State and Georgia State, but once again it fell apart after that. The No. 23 Vols hosted the No. 18 Gators, and had a 20-13 lead with three minutes left in the third quarter. Then Trey Burton ran for an 80-yard touchdown and the Gators never slowed down. Twenty-four unanswered points later, and Vols’ fans were very sad.

After an embarrassing 41-18 loss to Vanderbilt, the Vols said goodbye to Dooley. Offensive Coordinator Jim Chaney took over for the final game of the season, and was able to lead the Vols over Kentucky. But the damage was done. The Vols were in the market for another head coach.

2013 (5-7, 2-6 SEC)

Leading Passer: Justin Worley (1,239)

Leading Rusher: Rajion Neal (1,124)

Leading Receiver: Marquez North (496)

INT Leader: Brian Randolph (4)

Sack Leader: Corey Miller (6.5)

Bowl Game: N/A

We’ve made it. The Butch Jones era.

At the time, I remember Vols fans being happy. Jones had made Cincinnati a relevant team in the Big East, and let’s be honest, Tennessee fans were just happy he came from a Power 5 school. The expectations for the 2013 team were low considering they had lost some talented players to the NFL, but Jones sold fans on the future of the program and thus the term “Brick by Brick” was born.

On the field, the Vols showed promising flashes. They were able to take the No. 6 Georgia Bulldogs to overtime in Neyland Stadium, but Alton “Pig” Howard fumbled at the goal line on Tennessee’s first series, setting up the game-winning field goal for Georgia on the next drive.

The Vols were able to knock off No. 11 South Carolina the following week, ultimately making Jones’ first season a relative success. Another loss to Vanderbilt put a bit of a damper on the season, but with the recruiting class Jones was able to get, Vols fans were eager for 2014.

2014 (7-6, 3-5 SEC)

Leading Passer: Justin Worley (1,579)

Leading Rusher: Jalen Hurd (899)

Leading Receiver: Alton Howard (618)

INT Leader: Justin Coleman (4)

Sack Leader: Curt Maggitt (11)

Bowl Game: TaxSlayer Bowl (W vs Iowa 45-28)

2014 was supposed to be the year this program became relevant again. Jones had pulled in the No. 5 recruiting class in the nation, which included Jalen Hurd, Josh Malone, Evan and Elliot Berry, and Todd Kelly Jr. Their rival Florida didn’t have the talent they typically did. This was year two for Mr. Brick by Brick himself. It was time to start building that foundation.

As I’m sure most Vols fans know, it didn’t quite turn out the way everyone expected. After nearly upsetting Georgia once again the week before, the Vols came out and lost an ugly 10-9 game against and unranked Florida team. The offense under 2nd year coordinator Mike Bajakian looked lethargic and outright boring at times. After the loss to No. 3 Ole Miss, senior quarterback Justin Worley was benched in favor of Joshua Dobbs. Late-season wins against Kentucky and Vanderbilt led the Vols to bowl eligibility, which they took advantage of by taking down Iowa pretty easily. Dobbs threw for one touchdown and ran for two more as the team racked up 238 yards rushing against the Iowa defense.

With this win, the Vols went into 2015 with hope that their talented young core would be able to take the next step and get to double digit wins. How naive we were.

2015 (9-4, 5-3 SEC)

Leading Passer: Joshua Dobbs (2,291)

Leading Rusher: Jalen Hurd (1,288)

Leading Receiver: Von Pearson (409)

INT Leader: Todd Kelly Jr (3)

Sack Leader: Derek Barnett (10)

Bowl Game: Outback Bowl (W vs Northwestern 45-6)

I have to be fair here. In the moment, this season felt like a success. Yes, there were some disappointing moments, but this was the first time since 2007 that the Vols got to nine wins, and blowing out a good Northwestern team was a great way to end the season. But looking back on that roster and seeing all the NFL talent, it’s a wonder how that team didn’t win at least 10 games. Josh Dobbs, Jalen Hurd, Alvin Kamara (!!!), Emmanuel Moseley, Camerson Sutton, and a young Jauan Jennings were just some of the guys that we either see now play on Sundays or will very soon. Hindsight is always 20/20, but it takes a very… special person to only get nine wins with that team.

I hate to rub salt in the wound, but I have to mention the Florida game, as it was one of the more depressing losses the Vols had suffered at the hands of their long-time rivals. Trailing by six points, the Gators took over with 2:18 left in the game at their own 41 yard line. Three plays later, and it was 4th-and-14. Tennessee fans were ready to finally watch the 9-game losing streak come to an end. One play and 63 yards later, Vols fans were sad and Knoxville burst into flame.

That loss put a bit of a damper on the remainder of the season, even though they were finally able to pull of the upset against Georgia two weeks later. Again, the Vols went into the offseason with a cause for hope.

2016 (9-4, 4-4 SEC)

Leading Passer: Joshua Dobbs (2,946)

Leading Rusher: Joshua Dobbs (831)

Leading Receiver: Josh Malone (972)

INT Leader: Micah Abernathy (2)

Sack Leader: Derek Barnett (13)

Bowl Game: Music City Bowl (W vs Nebraska 38-24)

So many memorable moments from 2016. The Georgia Hail Mary. Finally beating Florida. Derek Barnett setting the all-time sacks record at Tennessee, passing Reggie White.

The Vols’ offense finally lived up to the talent they had, with Joshua Dobbs leading the team in passing and rushing and Josh Malone nearly reaching 1,000 yards. Unfortunately, the defense didn’t realize the goal was to keep the other team out of the endzone. It led to some exciting, high-scoring affairs, but ultimately led to some disappointing losses, including to an unranked South Carolina team and, once again, to Vanderbilt.

But I can’t go any further without talking about that Georgia game. That glorious, stress-inducing, joyful Georgia game. I remember standing in the student rec center in Knoxville with about 20 other students, watching the end of the game on the 25-inch TV they had hanging up above the front desk. When Georgia scored with 10 seconds left, many of the students uttered some non-family friendly words and walked out. The few of us who stayed were treated to one of the most exciting finishes to a college football game in history, and when Juaun Jennings came down with that football, it felt as if the last 10 years of mediocrity didn’t matter anymore. All that mattered was hugging the Vol fan standing next to you and enjoying the moment.

2017 (4-8, 0-8 SEC)

Leading Passer: Jarrett Guarantano (997)

Leading Rusher: John Kelley (778)

Leading Receiver: Brandon Johnson (482)

INT Leader: 4 tied with 1

Sack Leader: Colton Jumper (4.5)

Bowl Game: N/A

Oh boy. How quickly did things go south for this program. Not just a little south. So much so that one of the program’s beloved players, Jauan Jennings, was temporarily cut because of a profanity-laced tirade he unleashed on his Instagram. The dysfunction that had been building for a few years all came to fruition once all the talent on offense was gone.

After an embarrassing loss to Missouri on November 11, Butch Jones was fired and Brady Hoke was brought in to be the interim head coach for the final two games. Jones finished his tenure at Tennessee with a record of 34-27 (14-24 SEC) and three bowl wins.

2018 (5-7, 2-6 SEC)

Leading Passer: Jarrett Guarantano (1,907)

Leading Rusher: Ty Chandler (630)

Leading Receiver: Marquez Callaway (592)

INT Leader: Bryce Thompson (3)

Sack Leader: Darrell Taylor (8)

Bowl Game: N/A

November 26, 2017. A day that would go down in Rocky Top history as Schiano Sunday. It’s the day Vol Twitter became a national storyline.

Around mid-afternoon on that fateful Sunday, reports started to leak out saying Tennessee had hired their new head coach: Greg Schiano from Rutgers. The immediate reaction from most of the people in Knoxville was extremely negative. Whether or not that reaction was due to his lack of success at a smaller program, or his very distant alleged involvement in the Penn State cover up case, I’m not here to decide that. But what isn’t debatable is the uprising of the fan base against administration and more specifically, athletic director John Currie. Fans rallied on Twitter, they gathered on campus in protest, and The Rock was even painted to reflect the fans’ resentment of the hire.

And it worked. The school backed out of the hire, fired Currie, and brought in Phillip Fulmer to work as athletic director. A majority of national media talking heads mocked the administration for essentially giving in to their fan base and making coaching decisions based on Twitter approval. It was a rough few weeks to be a Vols fan, but the outcome was ousting an athletic director bordering on corrupt and getting a guy in office who immediately demanded respect from those around him in Fulmer.

As for the on-the-field product, not much of note happened. Jeremy Pruitt came over from Alabama to help steady a program that had been in constant limbo since the mid-2000s. Pruitt was able to lead the Vols over No. 21 Auburn and No. 12 Kentucky, but continued the drought against in-state rival Vanderbilt.

2019 (7-5, 5-3 SEC)

Leading Passer: Jarrett Guarantano (1,937)

Leading Rusher: Ty Chandler (620)

Leading Receiver: Jauan Jennings (942)

INT Leader: Nigel Warrior (4)

Sack Leader: Darrell Taylor (7)

Bowl Game: Gator Bowl (plays Indiana on Jan. 2)

After the whole Greg Schiano fiasco, everyone thought it was impossible for the University of Tennessee to stoop any lower as a football program. Then Georgia State rolls on in to Neyland Stadium, a sacred temple of college football, and completely crushes the Vols’ dreams before the season even starts. After an entire season of hearing from Jeremy Pruitt about mental toughness and focusing on the little things, Tennessee begins the 2019 campaign by getting embarrassed by Georgia state in front of their home fans. It was a new low for a program that spent the last decade in the trenches. They followed that game up by getting beat by BYU in overtime, and it started getting difficult to find three wins on the Vols’ remaining schedule.

Well, the Vols did in fact bounce back, riding on the back of Jauan Jennings and an improved Jarrett Guarantano to rip off five wins in a row to end the season. It’s a testament to Pruitt that his team didn’t quit on him after a dreadful start to the season, but we’ll have to wait until 2020 to see if the new crop of players coming in will be able to ride the momentum this team has built. I think Pruitt has proven himself to be a competent game coach, but he’ll need to prove he can develop the talent he’s brought in, a skill we haven’t seen from a Tennessee head coach since Papa Phil left.

By Matt Gray 104-5 The Zone

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