For Better or for Worse: A Quiet Summer for Tennessee Football

To put it mildly, it would be difficult to overstate the amount of fervor the University of Tennessee was dragging with them into the fall of 2016. Every direction you turned on the Internet, there was a new voice declaring UT the inevitable winners of the Southeastern Conference’s East Division, which would have been a first for the program in nine years. Hype videos, preseason lists and general expectations for Tennessee’s 2016 campaign were completely out of control.

But in the very first game, those expectations smashed headfirst into a talented Appalachian State team that both fans and players simply overlooked. It was an extremely close and stressful contest that UT eked out in overtime. That was the moment when all the hype and anticipation that had built up during the summer began to go sour; in spite of the fact that Tennessee actually won the game, the good vibes were all but gone after just one week.

They would continue to darken on a weekly basis thereafter, not because the team was losing, but because the collective media, fanbase, players and basically anyone with any sort of investment in the team all were expecting the Vols to have fielded a team of unstoppable monsters capable of executing a precision plan and destroying every team in its path. The Big Orange’s legions of fans were promised (they felt, at least) a long-delayed end to the pain of a tumultuous decade.

Butch Jones and company won some incredible games in the early part of the season and seemed, as a result, like a team with magic luck. But things never quite felt right after the matchup with Appy State. A rash of injuries began to affect the squad, and by the time they actually lost a game (an overtime thriller against Texas A&M), the dashed hopes and lofty expectations created by the summertime hype machine left both the team and its fanbase looking for an identity, looking for answers – but mostly just looking exhausted.

The echoes of the fever pitch to start the season would haunt the Vols for the remainder of the year. The magical wins, the end of the miserable losing streak against Florida, the death-defying escape from Georgia, the offensive dazzling of Joshua Dobbs, the sack history made by Derek Barnett … nothing could outshine the failure of not reclaiming the SEC East.

Despite all the injuries and subsequent inconsistent play, the opportunities to reach Atlanta were still within their grasp when they were squandered, which made things that much worse. Even through the difficult years before Jones arrived on campus, few were ever glad to see a season conclude; however, 2016 was different. Even as the Vols dismantled the Nebraska Cornhuskers in the Music City Bowl, there seemed to be an unusual sense of relief in the fanbase and program. Exhaustion reigned.

Enter the summer 2017, in which the Tennessee hype train has remained largely silent on all fronts. Every July, the SEC Media Days event kicks off in Hoover, Alabama. It marks the beginning of every conference team’s chest-beating and attention-thirsting with a week of head coaches and players doing endless TV, print and radio interviews.

BLANK ventured down to the Birmingham suburb in order to try to get a pulse on the strangely low-key 2017 edition of Jones’ Tennessee. Every angle on the Vols this summer seems simultaneously positive and negative. This month, we are exploring these perspectives and are discussing the stillness around UT’s program in a little exercise we like to call “For better or for worse.”

For better: weaponizing the mystery

There are a lot of very insightful professionals who handle Tennessee football, and only a fool would suggest that they aren’t well aware of the mysteries that surround the 2017 Vols. It is a team with no true face, no proven leader. With that in mind, the program’s lack of push for excitement this summer seems extremely smart.

At this week’s SEC Media Days, the never-not-on-message Jones exhibited zero flash, a sensibility that extended all the way down to the players who came along. The entire Tennessee portion of the experience felt strategically dry and buttoned-up, actually, even for a team that traditionally takes a conservative approach. If the idea was to walk softly, it was a huge success. Rather than bringing rising junior, rising star and occasional quote factory Jauan Jennings or rising senior Evan Berry, the team’s singular selection as a preseason All-American (Athlon, 2nd team), the Vols opted for a  profoundly underwhelming trio of reliable seniors (Emmanuel Mosely, Jashon Robertson, Kendal Vickers).

One of the most consistent fan conspiracy theories this year is that their team is saving up their cool moves for later games that matter. Every Tennessee fan, at some point, has watched the Vols play a clumsy game against a non-conference opponent and thought, “They’re saving all the wrinkles for Florida.” The best-case scenario this summer is that the Vols are doing exactly that – on a really extreme level.

The 2017 Vols will boast a loaded offensive front, a fierce backfield leader in John Kelly and a (still-yet-to-blossom) defensive front packed with star recruits who have shown flashes of greatness. And there is virtually no useful tape on whoever ends up leading the team at quarterback.

The Vols have a rejuvenated/reloaded coaching staff that includes particularly strong hires in QB coach Mike Canales and defensive backs coach Charlton Warren. Tennessee also has a new offensive coordinator in Larry Scott. Though he has coached many offensive positions in the past, Scott has never been an OC before, so (outside of educated guesses) there is no actual tape to prepare teams for his schemes.

Bob Shoop’s defense has now been installed for a full cycle, but the primary engineers of the Vols’ defense have moved on to the NFL, making the current crop of players a much more unpredictable unit for which to prepare. You can’t play away from Derek Barnett or Cam Sutton if they aren’t there. And while any team would be lucky to have stars like Jalen Reeves-Maybin and the two aforementioned standouts, Tennessee’s balance of talent – and in some cases, depth – should actually be much better in 2017, even without the stars of the past.

The point of all of this is: Tennessee was cannibalized by its own public relations aggression in 2016. With that trauma in mind, the 2017 Vols may be angling to weaponize the mystery around the team in 2017 in order to maximize on the team’s shadowy new look. Everything about this summer’s low-key tone plays well with this theory, down to bringing players to Media Days that deserve the honor but inspire no headlines or attention. At times, Vickers and Moseley even seemed surprised to have been selected.

But, if the brains behind Tennessee PR are posturing for maximum mystery, the moves (or lack thereof) this summer are totally brilliant. With no notable offseason scandals, success on the recruiting trail and rave reviews about the summer strength and conditioning program, staging a silent summer for the Vols seems smart in every way. The team gets to focus on football rather than expectations. And the fans get to continue to rehab from the extreme lows and highs of 2016 rather than being stirred into a months-long frenzy.

Without last year’s crazy hype, it certainly would have been easier to walk away from last year’s 9-4 record, including the breathtaking wins and some historic individual performances, with their heads held much higher. These are not bad days for the Tennessee football program, but managing expectations might be the only way to continue growing at a sustainable rate.

Or worse: getting ahead of the storm

The flipside to that sunny theory is that Tennessee indeed is trying to hide behind a quiet summer – but not as a strategy to rehabilitate a bruised fanbase and catch teams off guard with a hot new look. There’s a very strong possibility that Tennessee simply sees itself heading into yet another rebuilding period. With myriad new coaches, a new QB to select and break in and a somewhat-new offense to install, this could be a distinct possibility. Unfortunately for Jones and his staff, though, the vision of UT fans is not based on movement.

Regardless, it does appear that a quiet summer is good for the team, coaches and fans; it just may be that the quiet is motivated by a quickly approaching year of potential struggle. Tennessee once again is youth-heavy, and every Vol fan repeatedly has cringed through the “next year” taunts from fans of opposing SEC schools. It often does feel like Tennessee is on the cusp of getting all the pieces to click together. Except in 2016, however, when both fans and analysts were sure that it was finally time that Tennessee would stop pining for 1998 and instead climb back into the National Championship conversation.

Now, faced with a return to figuring out who Tennessee is as a football team, it feels wise to just stay quiet and work. The forums always will be peppered with both dreamers and haters, but the vibe feels much more measured and realistic than in previous years. The reality is that UT football and the press machine tasked with promoting them may just be owning who they will be in 2017. There’s a reason we play the games, and Tennessee certainly has the tools to beat almost anyone they play. But it simply may be that hard lessons about expectations were learned in 2016.

Jones has steadily improved and built his program at Tennessee, but the rampant hype of 2016, followed by back-to-earth results, damaged him. It isn’t at all fair, but your standing with the fans matters in Knoxville, and 2016 was a total uppercut to the patience of UT’s passionate (and, at times, phenomenally weird and unrealistic) fanbase. Jones’ improvements to the APR, the fact that his Vols were, for a moment, on the nation’s longest run of consecutive wins, snapping the 10-year misery against Florida … all went out the window when the team, wounded by bad health and some dissension, wilted after the loss to Texas A&M.

The reality is that Tennessee may just be facing an overhaul following the 2017 season. The team is talented and balanced, but they’re also very young and unproven at key positions. Fans won’t be kind to a step back in the wrong direction, and the PR powers that be may simply have no moves left – except not to feed the hype beast. It’s possible that Tennessee sees strong results in 2017, but it feels very wise for the team to keep one foot in the tall grass in the meantime. Only managed expectations will protect Jones’ regime from Tennessee’s bloodthirsty fans. And in Knoxville, that in-advance damage control is more important than the power of positive thinking.

So, for better or for worse, Tennessee had a very bland summer and a similarly unremarkable showing at SEC Media Days, and we welcome it. The endless possibilities of summer for college football fans are enough to drive a person crazy. And it happens every single year. It’s just nice, after the wild ride of 2016, to feel like the program and its fanbase are staying focused on rest, recovery and conditioning this summer. It’s going to be an exciting fall, and there’s no reason to start celebrating or suffering early. That said, these are not bad days for Tennessee football, and no amount of hype can change that.

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