I think you’re right.
In 50 years or so watching Tennessee play football I’ve seen the program cycle up and cycle down several times. Based on what I’ve seen recently I truly believe the current down cycle is just about over. After consecutive seasons of 5-7, 7-6, 6-7, 5-7, 5-7 and 5-7, I see light at the end of the tunnel. Bright light, in fact.
Typically, I've found there are three signs that an upswing is coming:
1-Stability at quarterback
2-Loads of young talent
3-A winning attitude
One of the oldest clichés in football holds that “The quarterback gets too much credit when you win and too much blame when you lose.” Sorry, not buying it. You don’t need a future Hall of Famer at quarterback to win but you need a guy who fits the offense. Here are a few examples:
The 1994 season saw Tennessee lose first-team quarterback Jerry Colquitt to a torn ACL on the seventh play of the opener at UCLA. Without him, the Vols struggled to a 3-4 start by alternating Todd Helton, Peyton Manning and Branndon Stewart. Head coach Phil Fulmer eventually settled on Manning, who directed four consecutive victories to close the regular season and a lopsided defeat of Virginia Tech in the Gator Bowl.
With a proven quarterback at the helm, the next three seasons saw Tennessee go 11-1, 10-2 and 11-2 from 1995-97. Manning left at this point but the momentum the program built didn’t. With Tee Martin starting every game at quarterback the ’98 Vols went 13-0 and won the national title.
History basically repeated in 2000. Lacking an established quarterback, Tennessee struggled to a 2-3 start behind Joey Mathews and A.J. Suggs. Casey “The Ice Man” Clausen took the reins at this point, guiding the Vols to a sweep of their last six regular-season games. The season ended with a Cotton Bowl loss but Clausen bounced back to go 11-2 in 2001. He slipped to 8-5 in an injury-plagued 2002 season but closed with a 10-3 mark in 2003.
Clearly, a quality quarterback provides a chance to win big. Manning went 39-6 as a starter. Clausen went 34-10, with a mind-boggling 14-1 road record.
Manning elevated the play of those around him. So did Clausen. Now we’re seeing the same thing from Joshua Dobbs. Assuming a team with a 3-5 record and a sputtering offense, he has gone 2-0 as a starter this fall. Dobbs posted 467 total yards (301 passing, 166 rushing) in the win at South Carolina, then added 345 yards (297 passing, 48 rushing) versus Kentucky with an amazing 199.4 passer-efficiency rating. Did I mention that he accounted for five touchdowns in the former and four in the latter?
Tennessee’s turnaround in 2014 isn’t all about Dobbs, however, just as it wasn’t all about Manning in 1994 or all about Clausen in 2000.
Manning benefited from having great weapons at his disposal in the mid-1990s – guys like Joey Kent, Marcus Nash, Peerless Price, Jay Graham and Jamal Lewis. Ditto for Clausen in the early 2000s, with guys like Cedrick Wilson, Donte Stallworth, Kelley Washington, Travis Henry, Travis Stephens and Jason Witten. Dobbs is similarly blessed, thanks to weapons such as Marquez North, Von Pearson, Alton Howard, Jason Croom, Jalen Hurd and Ethan Wolf.
Lest we forget, Tennessee featured some great defensive players during Manning’s stint on The Hill – guys like Leonard Little, Jonathan Brown, Steve White, Shane Burton, Al Wilson, Raynoch Thompson, Scott Galyon, Terry Fair and Dwayne Goodrich. Clausen’s era also featured some salty defenders who made his job easier – guys like John Henderson, Albert Haynesworth, Will Overstreet, Parys Haralson, Eddie Moore, Kevin Simon, Gibril Wilson, Jabari Greer and Andre Lott.
Scanning the 2014 Vol defense I see budding superstars in end Derek Barnett, linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin and cornerback Cameron Sutton. I’ve seen enough from freshmen such as end Dewayne Hendrix, linebacker Cortez McDowell, safeties Todd Kelly Jr. and Evan Berry, plus corner Emmanuel Moseley and nickel back Rashaan Gaulden to believe they’re going to be exceptional in time.
In addition to a stable situation at quarterback and young talent at virtually every position, I see a winning attitude spreading throughout the program – just as I saw in the late stages of 1994 and 2000. Taking their cue from head coach Butch Jones, the 2014 Vols seem more focused on the team than the individual. They despise losing but regroup quickly to prepare for the next battle. They don’t fold in the face of adversity and they don’t bask too long in the glow of victory.
Jones put it this way following the Game 10 blowout of Kentucky:
“It's a young football team, but this football team's different. Their whole mindset's different.... We're building something special here.”
I believe he’s right. Whether the Vols win or lose Saturday against Missouri, that building process is picking up steam. There is light at the end of the tunnel, and it’s getting brighter all the time.
Butch Jones speaks after Tuesday practice