There was a saying among Tennessee fans when things seemed to be making a turn for the better: “Feels like ’98.” It’s a nod to the Vols’ last national championship season and a reminder that things used to be bright on Rocky Top.
It’s was a phrase of blind optimism and sometimes blatant sarcasm used during the past decade, when Tennessee seemed stuck in the early stages of rebuilding mode. There’s even a website for Vols fans that shares its name with the moniker.
Now, Tennessee holds an 8-4 (5-3 SEC) record, is second in the SEC East and will play in a New Years Day bowl.
“That was one of the most rewarding things of being here, is being able to gather the football team up in the locker room,” head coach Butch Jones said during his press conference on Monday. “(It) was a little bit different setting than last year, and (to) be able to tell them we were going to play in the 30th anniversary of the Outback Bowl in Tampa, Florida.”
That season saw Tennessee finish first in the SEC East and play in — you guessed it — the Outback Bowl. And really, that was the last season before everything seemed to go downhill.
It wasn’t the Vols’ most memorable season, but a solid one that seemed to be acceptable for a program that was then the second winningest in SEC history. But the following season saw long-time coach Phillip Fulmer’s resignation, which led to three different coaches in just five seasons.
So really, 2007 was the calm before the storm that was Tennessee football for the past few years. Fittingly, this season should be the checkpoint in the rebuilding process where the Vols go from good to great.
The 2015 campaign is the perfect example of a glass half full/half empty scenario. Tennessee finished with its best record since 2007 and that progress can’t be ignored.
But this team should have been the SEC East division champions and — aside from some late game collapses — could have finished in the Top 10. The Vols competed in every single game in 2015 and lost by a combined margin of 17 points in four games.
Tennessee would have been undefeated against a weak SEC East schedule — something the Gators took advantage of — had it not blown a 14-point lead at Florida. So yes, there are plenty of “what ifs” and disappointments that distort what was a very good season compared to others in recent history.
But the Vols seem to be making steady progress and should be a contender in the SEC East with another year of added experience. It may not be a national championship season, but it’s a start and a near reflection of the last season of relevance in Knoxville before the downward spiral.
Tennessee football could return to prominence in 2016, but first it needs to end its 2015 campaign with a victory over a game Northwestern team. The Vols need to finish their season strong and take momentum into the offseason to continue progress in their rebuilding project.