KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Even in Tennessee’s worst seasons, the Volunteers found a way to end on a strong note, be it with a win in their final game of the regular season or a trip to some bowl game.
The Vols finished the 2011 season by finding a new low.
“Sometimes you don’t always get what you want, but a lot of times you get what you deserve. We’re not a good football team,” coach Derek Dooley said.
With a 10-7 loss to a Kentucky team that fielded a wide receiver at quarterback, Tennessee (5-7, 1-7) wrapped up back-to-back losing seasons for the first time in a century, saw the end of a 26-game winning streak against the Wildcats and finished at the bottom of the Southeastern Conference East Division.
The Vols, whose 49 bowl game appearances are tied with Texas as the second most in the nation, also won’t be playing in the postseason for the third time in seven seasons.
“I feel like we let a bunch of guys down — this team, and definitely the Vol nation,” wide receiver Rajion Neal said.
It’s rock bottom for a team that’s had a rough stretch of seasons on Rocky Top.
The Vols have been in rebuilding mode since the firing of Phillip Fulmer and quick exit of Lane Kiffin left them with back-to-back coaching turnovers after the 2008 and 2009 seasons.
Eighteen recruits from the signing classes those seasons — the Vols who would have been juniors and seniors this season — left Tennessee, were kicked off the team or never qualified in the first place, leaving Tennessee short an entire signing class worth of players. Freshmen and sophomore outnumbered the upperclassmen on the team two to one this year.
When sophomore quarterback Tyler Bray and sophomore wide receivers Justin Hunter and Da’Rick Rogers lit up the Neyland Stadium scoreboard in a 45-23 win against Cincinnati on Sept. 10, expectations rose for the team. The young Vols appeared capable of outplaying their youth and outscoring many of the opponents on their schedule with a dynamic passing game.
But Hunter suffered a season-ending ACL injury in the next game and a broken thumb kept Bray out of five games, exposing Tennessee as a team with hardly any depth and one that relied a bit too much on a few key players.
The injuries couldn’t have come at a worse time. Tennessee faced five teams that finished the 2011 season ranked among the Top 25 without Bray and Hunter and was outscored 158-35 in those five losses. Two of those losses were to No. 1 LSU and No. 2 Alabama, both teams with clear shots at playing in the BCS championship.
Still, the Vols beat each of their nonconference opponents and managed to pull out a 27-21 overtime win against a now bowl-bound Vanderbilt team on Nov. 19, keeping alive their hopes of salvaging the season with a postseason trip.
They just didn’t play like a team that deserved to be in a bowl game against a Kentucky team in the midst of its own disappointing season. With nothing to lose, the Wildcats went with wide receiver Matt Rourk in place of injured quarterbacks Maxwell Smith and Morgan Newton.
CoShik Williams ran for a touchdown, and Roark had 124 yards on 24 carries while attempting just six passes. An ill Bray, who hasn’t quite looked like his previous in the two games he’s played since breaking his thumb, couldn’t do enough to keep Tennessee from suffering its first loss against Kentucky since 1984.
“At some point we had to hit a real low point with where this program is,” Dooley said. “I knew we were going to hit one. I knew. I hoped we wouldn’t, but it’s inevitable. You’re going to hit a bottom.”
Dooley has had a little more leeway than most coaches these days when it comes to wins and losses because of the program’s turmoil in recent years. That won’t last much longer with a Tennessee fan base that expects nine-win seasons and bids to bowl games played on New Year’s Day or later.
There’s some promise for the Vols. They lose just a few seniors who made significant contributions to the team this season and return all but three starters.
Hunter, linebacker Herman Lathers and safety Brent Brewer will return from injuries, while Dooley’s third recruiting class is shaping up to be among the top 20 signing classes in the nation.
Dooley knows it won’t just take warm bodies to return Tennessee to its former glory, though.
“We’ve got a lot of work we need to do to be a good football team. We have to work at that. We need to know there’s a lot of things you have to do to be a good player. There’s a lot of things you have to do to be a good team.,” he said.
“We’re going to begin our climb.”