Tennessee's football team was never going to compete for an SEC East title this year. Butch Jones' first season as head coach was all about taking steps to rebuild a once-proud program.
So far, the Vols sit at 4-4, a game better than most prognosticators expected they'd be at this point, thanks to Jones' signature win over South Carolina.
They've beaten Austin Peay, Western Kentucky and South Alabama, as expected.
They've been blown out on the road against No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 Oregon, as expected.
Like always, UT lost to Florida. But they also upset the Gamecocks to tilt the trajectory of the program. Jones said this week that he is brutally honest about where he believes his team is at this point of the development process, according to UTSports.com:
I tell them where we're at, where we need to go, how we're going to get there, and this is what we need to do. They listen, and when you're developing a team and a program, there's good days and bad days unfortunately. We're going through the toughest schedule in the country. I see progress every day, some days more than others, but I continue to see progress, and I'm encouraged.
Jones' Vols are about to enter a November schedule that will define where they stand in the SEC's pecking order.
The tougher-than-originally-expected stretch begins with a road test against No. 10 Missouri before No. 8 Auburn comes to Knoxville. A bye week follows before UT hosts Vanderbilt and closes the season at Kentucky.
A 2-2 record and a bowl berth is expected—and essential if the Vols want to continue the positive momentum. Anything better, and it's a banner inaugural year for the new staff. Anything worse, and concerns will abound.
UT plummeted to the bottom tier of the league under Derek Dooley. They were 5-19 in the SEC in his three seasons and never beat any team of merit. This year, UT is 1-3 in the SEC but looked worthy of moving into that second tier with the win over South Carolina.
A strong finish will solidify UT's jump to that second tier and prove the Vols are ahead of the rebuilding schedule. With plenty of talent turnover expected in the SEC East next year, the Vols want to position themselves to take advantage.
Following a 45-10 loss to Alabama, Jones spoke to the Chattanooga Times Free-Press' Mark Wiedmer about keeping the big picture in mind with his team:
"Am I disappointed [in the loss to Bama]?" Jones asked rhetorically. "Absolutely, because I expect to win every football game, and as I told you, I'm extremely impatient, but we're not going to take any short cuts. We're going to do it right."
Evidence of building the right way is everywhere. There's proof in the nation's No. 2-ranked recruiting class, according to 247Sports. There is proof in the continued growth and improvement of the players on the field. And, finally, there is proof in the signature win.
But without at least a .500 finish, most of the wind is knocked out of that win over South Carolina.
The Vols are entering November with a true freshman starter at quarterback in Joshua Dobbs. Another true freshman, Riley Ferguson, is the backup. It's a tough spot for the program to be in, but it's also an opportunity to build around the young signal-callers now and for the future.
The goal of making a bowl game doesn't change with Dobbs at the helm. Antonio "Tiny" Richardson told the Daily Beacon's David Cobb that UT's goal is much bigger than just making any bowl:
That's been our goal since the offseason, to go to a big-time bowl game. And if we can win these next four, we can go to a pretty good bowl game, and that's the goal right now, is just to snap and clear and win these next four.
The Vols have certainly improved since the season's start. They aren't ready to compete with teams like Alabama and Oregon, but they were a historically poor performance by Nathan Peterman away from being in the game against Florida. Then they took Georgia and South Carolina down to the final play, splitting those games.
Now comes a final month's worth of games where Tennessee can—and expects to—compete.
There are no more juggernauts on the slate. While Auburn and Missouri are both playing well, neither should have a decisive talent or depth advantage over UT a year removed from a losing record of their own.
Many Vols fans are wondering how far the team has to go to close the gap with most of the SEC. November will be the perfect litmus test to find out.
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