One could make a real argument that Tennessee's decline as a football program began with Nick Saban.
In the year 2000, Tennessee - two years removed from a national championship - rolled into Baton Rouge to face a wounded LSU team. In this case, "wounded" means they were coming off back-to-back losses to Auburn and ... well, UAB. That Vols squad wasn't great - they'd lost at home to Florida in the infamous game where Jabar Gaffney dropped the game-winning touchdown, only the official gave him the catch anyway - but they were expected, as they always did, to be fighting for the SEC East and a top-tier bowl bid.
Saban's team beat them 38-31 in overtime.
A year later, Fulmer's team - which beat Saban's LSU during the regular season - was poised to steal a bid for the BCS title, after beating Florida in Gainesville (the game was postponed due to 9/11) and watching several dominoes fall in front of them. All they had to do was beat LSU a second time, in the SEC Championship Game.
LSU won 31-20. Tennessee hasn't come within sniffing distance of the national championship since.
Since he returned to college football in 2007, the Vols have been the only team against which Nick Saban has never struggled. Tennessee has come close to beating Alabama exactly once in the past eight seasons. We will now pause for a moment to reflect on how that turned out.
You may also recognize the coach of that Tennessee team - the guy who tells Coach Saban, "We'll get you next year" during the handshake - from somewhere else.
In fact, while we're on the subject, here is a partial list of things that have happened since the last time Tennessee beat Alabama (in 2006):
- I have changed jobs twice.
- We elected a black president.
- Alabama won three national championships.
- I moved from Livejournal to Blogger to Wordpress.
- My friend served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
- Another friend of mine helped found a brewery in Tuscaloosa.
- Two of my grandparents died.
- Tennessee hired three different head coaches.
- Another friend of mine had two children, one of which is now old enough to ride the school bus.
You catch my drift. Tennessee has fallen so precipitously since the turn of this century, the Vols are currently riding a two-game losing streak to Vanderbilt. They limp into this year's version of The Third Saturday in October That Is Actually Now On the Fourth Saturday Most Years at 3-4, against an admittedly tough schedule.
The offense is one you'll probably recognize, as well.
To be perfectly fair, no one who pays close attention to college football expected a great deal of improvement from Tennessee in 2014 - the Vols' opening month of Utah State, Arkansas State, at Oklahoma and home vs. Georgia and Florida looked daunting for a team everyone knew would be populated mainly with kids. The offense, though, has mostly been a non-entity thus far - through seven games, Tennessee ranks 113th in the country in total offense, averaging just over 4 yards per play, with 20 offensive TDs for the entire season. Most notably, when the Vols had an opportunity to make a statement about their progress against an unraveling Florida squad - a defense you may remember surrendering over 500 yards in Tuscaloosa - they flopped, netting only 28 yards rushing in a 10-9 loss.
This shouldn't be seen entirely as an indictment of Butch Jones, in the second year of what everyone agrees is a multi-year rebuilding project in Knoxville. His offensive line, for example, entered the season with six career starts between them, and his starting quarterback - we'll cover him in a minute - has struggled with a myriad of injuries.
The Vols will, of course, want to go quickly on offense, as has been Jones' wont dating back to his days at Cincinnati. The Bearcats in 2012 - his final season there - won the conference championship, thanks mostly to an offense that averaged over 30 points per game and boasted the Big East Offensive Player of the Year. Jones also currently holds the title of SEC Coach Who Looks Most Like Someone Who Once Starred in An Adult Film. But that's neither here nor there.
The job now firmly belongs in the hands of poor Justin Worley, whose miserable night at Ole Miss ended with an apparently drunk Rebel fan asking him a bizarre question during the postgame media session.
For the season, Worley is completing just over 62 percent of his throws, but averaging just over 6 yards per completion. He has thrown 8 interceptions, and has been sacked a whopping 20 times in games vs. OU, UGA, Florida and Ole Miss. The Gators and Rebels sacked him 6 and 7 times, respectively.
That probably accounts for his battles with injury - he has struggled with nagging problems with his thumb, as well as his shoulder. His thumb, specifically, was likely responsible for ... well, you know.
The bulk of the work, then, has belonged to husky freshman tailback Jalen Hurd, currently averaging just over 4 yards per carry behind that bruised offensive line. Marlin Lane - who may be in his 9th year in Knoxville - is the second leading rusher, but has around half the carries.
Tennessee boasts some diversity at receiver - sophomore Marquez North and junior Pig Howard are the two leaders (26 catches apiece), but freshman Josh Malone and freshman tight end Ethan Wolf were the two leaders in the Vols' closest effort so far, at Georgia.
As with most of our discussions thus far this season, the conclusion one should draw from this information is relatively simple: Alabama's is the more talented, and more experienced, side of this particular matchup. The Crimson Tide enters this game one week after shutting down a much more talented team in Texas A&M. Specifically, Alabama's front matches up well against a Tennessee front that, even at its best, does not match the visitors in terms of experience or savvy.
If this team plays the same version of itself that showed vs. the Aggies, there is nothing to suggest the Vols will see much of any type of success on offense. It isn't impossible - Tennessee showed in last season's upset of South Carolina that it is capable of playing over its head for a Saturday - but it would defy every form of logic heretofore put forth.
As always, hope for the best. Tennessee sucks.