Tennessee football head coach Butch Jones loves to speak of building the Volunteers "brick by brick." But the raw truth is, other than a few stray players, there simply aren't many building blocks for 2014.
Jones can hang his hat on a star-studded recruiting class if he keeps everybody in the fold, but the on-the-field product UT trotted out this year has few redeeming qualities.
A program needing to establish some sort of identity and some underclassmen playmakers failed to do so. There is no offensive direction, few defensive stalwarts around which to build, and no real rallying points besides a "signature win" over South Carolina.
Even so, Jones said during Monday's press conference that he sees a growth and difference in the football program, despite a lack of a bowl berth (via UT's website):
Everyone looks at the win/loss record... I have to be able to step back, take the emotional side out of it and look at the progression from December to where we are at right now. I see tremendous strides. From the mentality of our football team to the energy, to the work ethic, to all the demands that we placed upon them, our style of play, the standard, the expectation.
For people that don't play sports, they don't get that. They think you roll the footballs out and you play on Saturday. But the individuals that are in the battle every day and understand the sport, they understand that there are a lot of things that go into it.
Despite those internal milestones, having no tangible evidence reflected in wins harms perception. Also, the reality for Tennessee is any positive takeaways from this season are minimal.
There isn't one thing about which a casual observer can definitively say, "Tennessee will do that well next year."
There were plenty of things broken in a program that had essentially been run into the ground by Derek Dooley and Lane Kiffin. From fundamental flaws to a dearth of talent, Jones and his staff have encountered various hurdles that derailed a bowl trip.
But that doesn't change the fact that this program lacks a clear direction after Year 1 of Jones' tenure.
First, none of the three quarterbacks UT played seized the job and cemented himself as the "quarterback of the future."
Junior Justin Worley was inconsistent enough to get benched in favor of Nathan Peterman to start the Florida game. Peterman was awful against the Gators and then got injured, leading to Worley's reinstatement.
Worley played much better then, but his injury against Alabama forced true freshman Joshua Dobbs into the starting role. Despite flashes of talent, Dobbs has done little, completing just 59 percent of his passes for 496 yards, no touchdowns and five interceptions in an 0-3 stretch as a starter (he also came off the bench against Alabama).
Fellow freshman Riley Ferguson was ahead of Dobbs most of the year on the depth chart, but he was injured when Dobbs' number was called.
Now, all four scholarship quarterbacks should go into the offseason believing they've got a legitimate chance to start. While that's great for competition, it's not an ideal scenario for a young 2014 team to have to audition quarterbacks again.
The Vols entered the season with the expectation that they'd be able to run behind a senior-laden offensive line considered among the nation's best.
Instead, they currently rank 50th nationally in rush offense and couldn't convert a 3rd-and-1 on Saturday against Vanderbilt that would have helped salt away the game. Short-yardage issues are part of this group's legacy.
If Antonio "Tiny" Richardson goes pro, as expected, UT must replace its entire offensive line anyway. But Tennessee's failed expectation to capitalize on a supposed team strength does nothing but call into question the effectiveness of the offensive scheme.
A brand-new offensive front will be blocking for Marlin Lane and several new runners next year, and breaking in a new line in the SEC rarely works out.
Finally, as well as the Vols' defense played against Vandy, it was still a crippling weakness through the meat of the schedule.
It's not necessarily a bad thing that UT must replace six senior defensive linemen and five senior linebackers for 2014, but it still makes it difficult to feel comfortable looking ahead to all the new faces coordinator John Jancek has to break in next year.
The Vols are rebuilding. That starts from mentality all the way through personnel. Given the roster deficiencies, the first significant strides in getting this program back to prominence were always going to be forged in recruiting.
Unfortunately, UT didn't take advantage of the opportunities to show everybody its growth on the field, besides the development of a few players like Alton Howard, Cameron Sutton and Marquez North.
Fans will have to continue to trust in the things Jones said Monday about the improvements he insists exist:
I said in August, we need to get to a bowl game, but success isn't totally measured in that. After year one, we have to make sure the standard, the foundation and everything is in place to continue to move forward. I do believe that that is in place. Do we have a lot of work to do? Absolutely. I see the progress but sometime it is not measured in wins.
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