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September 16, 2010

Buchanan: Rocky times on Rocky Top

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - Traffic jams still appear on Neyland Drive. Tailgate parties still go on up and down Phillip Fulmer Way. Orange-and-white clad masses still line up alongside Peyton Manning Pass for the Vol Walk.

Not much on game day has changed outside Tennessee's Neyland Stadium.

Inside, though, it's quite a bit different.

Ten times in the 13 seasons from 1995-2007, the Volunteers finished in the top 25. But they haven't been ranked since opening the season No. 18 in 2008. In the opener that season, they lost to UCLA and disappeared from the polls. And after taking a 48-13 spanking from Oregon last week, there's no sign that the Volunteers will be returning any time soon.

Indeed, things could get worse quickly. The Vols play host to Florida this week, then must face LSU, Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina in the next six weeks; they almost certainly will be underdogs to all five.

It has gotten so bad that Tennessee backed out of a series with North Carolina that begins next season and replaced the Tar Heels with Buffalo to enhance their chances of reaching a bowl. Think about that: Tennessee, once an elite program, is ducking a basketball school.

Opponents used to come to Knoxville and leave with lumps and losses. That was the case five years ago, when ninth-ranked California arrived with national championship aspirations and left with a jolt of reality that came in a 35-18 whoopin'.

Now, those "soft" Pac-10 teams -- as SEC fans often call them -- have won four in a row over Tennessee. Last week's loss to Oregon was the most disturbing because of a second-half collapse that made first-year coach Derek Dooley question the competitiveness of his players.

"We're not very deep, so we couldn't roll guys in, but it shows what we are," Dooley said after the loss. "We didn't handle adversity well and we got run out of the stadium."

The concern wasn't so much that the Vols lost to a more talented opponent, or that they blew an early 10-point lead, or that they absorbed their most lopsided non-conference defeat since falling on the road to USC 43-7 in 1981. Rather, it was that Tennessee players admittedly shut down after falling behind 20-13 when Oregon cornerback Cliff Harris intercepted a pass by junior quarterback Matt Simms and returned it 76 yards for a touchdown.

"Quite honestly, I felt like we quit," Tennessee linebacker Nick Reveiz said.

Dooley wasn't quite that blunt.

"I've been saying it for eight months: I don't really care how we are until we hit bad adversity," Dooley said. "We hit some bad adversity in the third quarter and we didn't handle it well."

The Vols should be accustomed to handling adversity. Tennessee started 10 freshmen or sophomores against Oregon; three were in the offensive line. Simms is playing for his third team in three years. Dooley is the Vols' third coach in three seasons, and he was hired after Lane Kiffin left for USC just three weeks before National Signing Day. Running back Bryce Brown, once the top-rated recruit in the country, transferred to Kansas State. A July brawl in a Knoxville bar resulted in the dismissal of strong safety Darren Myles. Then, in August, defensive end Ben Martin and defensive tackle Marlon Walls were lost indefinitely with Achilles' injuries.

Those incidents may have been ominous omens for a difficult season.

Losing seasons once were as rare as Alabama fans in Knoxville. Yet with an inexperienced and undermanned team weakened by injuries and off-field incidents and with a challenging schedule, a second losing record in three seasons -- and a third in six seasons -- appears a distinct possibility.

Heck, Tennessee can't even count on a victory over Kentucky, which it has beaten 24 consecutive seasons.

Volunteers fans seem to sense that a tough season looms. A visit from the Gators usually means a sellout crowd at Neyland Stadium. Yet tickets are available for Saturday's game.

So, when did it all start to crumble?

Though the effects were not felt immediately, Tennessee's decline can be traced to 2001, when Mark Richt was hired as Georgia's coach. The state of Georgia annually produces some of the nation's top high school talent, and Richt has been able to keep many of the top prospects from going out of state. That hurt Tennessee, which relied heavily on Georgia players to win the 1998 national championship and remain an elite program. Vols stars such as Jamal Lewis, Deon Grant and Cosey Coleman were Georgia natives.

The state of Tennessee doesn't produce enough top-level prospects to support an elite program. Furthermore, many of the state's top prospects annually come out of Memphis, which is geographically closer to seven other SEC cities than to Knoxville and where there is little in-state loyalty.

Tennessee is going to have to successfully recruit regionally and nationally to resurface among the nation's elite programs. Of course, Dooley, who coached under Nick Saban at LSU, is aware of that.

It's a long way down
A look at how Tennessee has fared since winning the national title in 1998.
19999-3/6-2FiestaPhil Fulmer
20008-4/5-3CottonPhil Fulmer
200111-2/7-1*CitrusPhil Fulmer
20028-5/5-3PeachPhil Fulmer
200310-3/6-2PeachPhil Fulmer
200410-3/7-1*CottonPhil Fulmer
20055-6/3-5NonePhil Fulmer
20069-4/5-3OutbackPhil Fulmer
200710-4/6-2*OutbackPhil Fulmer
20085-7/3-5NonePhil Fulmer
20097-6/4-4Chick-fil-ALane Kiffin
NOTE: * - Won SEC East but lost in SEC championship game
Dooley is the son of legendary Georgia coach Vince Dooley. That won't mean much to today's prospects, who weren't even born when Vince retired from Georgia in 1988. But the name may resonate with some prospects' moms and dads, and in the ultra-competitive SEC, you look for any edge you can get.

"It's important to know that the regional area outside of Knoxville is the heart and soul of this program," Dooley said when he took over in January. "We'll work from the inside out.

"It starts with my roots in Georgia. I've been recruiting the state of Texas all of my career, and that's a phenomenal state for football players. I lived in Florida for two years and developed a lot of contacts down there."

Despite his late start on the job, Dooley was able to sign a recruiting class that was ranked ninth in the nation by Rivals.com. The hope is that the Volunteers' youth this season will turn into experience -- and star power -- in the future. Despite running behind unproven blockers, junior tailback Tauren Poole still managed 162 rushing yards against Oregon. The Volunteers also have high hopes for freshman quarterback Tyler Bray, who has a strong arm but needs to add bulk to his 6-foot-6, 210-pound frame.

So, there is hope for the future.

But how long will it take for Tennessee to return to prominence? Saban needed two years to restore Alabama to championship caliber. That's all Urban Meyer needed at Florida, too. But it looks as if it's going to take the Vols a while.

Like most programs that have enjoyed great success, Tennessee isn't known for great patience. Remember, Fulmer was fired in '08 after enduring just his second losing season in 17 years.

Fulmer, now an analyst for the CBS College Sports network, is a Tennessee alum, and he's not afraid to speak his mind about his alma mater.

"It's hard to watch something you've put most of your adult life into," he said in a CBS teleconference Monday. "... All of a sudden, you're watching what's transpiring now through the program and an obvious attempt to change the culture of Tennessee football that failed."

The "change of culture" reference was to Kiffin, and it's no secret that Fulmer didn't think much of his successor. But he says he likes Dooley and said Monday that he has had "two or three great meetings" with Dooley. Fulmer also said he doesn't think it will be an easy fix.

"You're looking, I think, at a fairly long-term problem, certainly with all the transition that the program has been through in the last couple of years from me to Kiffin, a good number of players that left the program, just I think a general attitude," Fulmer said. "I know my last few years, if you talked about only winning nine, it was an act of terror, and now they're pushing and hoping to win six to get in a bowl game someway."

Fulmer deserves part of the blame for the current malaise. Yes, he won a national title in '98. But he didn't win another SEC title, and in the 10 seasons after winning the national crown, Fulmer and the Vols lost at least four games six times -- including in each of his last four seasons -- and at least five games three times.

There is a perception that the program grew stale, and that might be the case. His recruiting fell off, as did player development. Tennessee had 38 selections in the five drafts between 1999 and 2003; in the next seven drafts, through this year's, there were 28 Vols drafted, including just four in 2008 and '09 combined.

Still, Tennessee fans will wait for Dooley to turn hope into glory. They will wait for him to teach his team to play through adversity without quitting. They will wait for him to assemble a team that can build a 10-point lead and then protect it.

But they won't wait long.

Simms suggested they may not have to.

"This was good experience for a lot of us," he said after the loss to Oregon. "We don't have a lot of experience, but there are a lot of great players on this team. This was a good learning lesson. We have a long season ahead of us and a lot of good things can happen for us."

Obviously, there is still optimism at Neyland Stadium. There just used to be more reason for it.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.

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