Tennessee Stat Book
Stable or stagnant: If you edit the debate on UT football down to a couple of words, that's what you have.
When the Vols win three consecutive games and show improvement, you hear from fans who appreciate coach Phillip Fulmer's track record of success. When the Vols suffer an embarrassing loss as they did Saturday against Alabama, you hear from fans weary of the repetition.
If you crave stability, the idea of replacing UT's coach of the last 15 years is abhorrent. It's also scary. If you fire Fulmer, whom do you hire? The next Urban Meyer or the next Ron Zook?
In other quarters, stagnancy is just as repulsive. The Vols haven't won an SEC championship since 1998. They're no longer on college football's center stage; even when they win, their act is tiresome.
After the 59-20 loss to Florida last month and the 41-17 loss to Alabama on Saturday, some fans say they're pulling for the Vols to lose, so UT will be forced to make a coaching change. One fan said he would fly his UT flags upside down and encouraged others to do the same until there's a coaching change.
That's a minority. In fact, UT fans are more traditional than most college football fans. They like the idea that former UT player Johnny Majors was the head coach from 1977 through 1992, and that another former UT player has been the head coach ever since.
They see the coaching instability at Alabama since coach Bear Bryant's retirement 25 years ago. They see what happened at Florida when the Gators replaced Steve Spurrier with Zook.
But they see something else when they look at those two rivals.
Florida obviously has made a great hire in Meyer. Coach Nick Saban's track record and what happened at Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday suggest Alabama has done the same.
UT couldn't win an SEC title when Florida had Zook, and Alabama had Mike Shula. How do you expect it to win a conference championship with Meyer and Saban in charge of those programs?
The staunchest traditionalists who appreciate what Fulmer has done for the program might settle for less. They can cite the balance of the SEC and parity in college football and say eight or nine wins a year and a bowl invitation qualify as a successful season.
But athletic director Mike Hamilton won't say that. He expects more. And he has seen what his hiring of Bruce Pearl has done for a once-dormant basketball program. Football no longer generates the kind of excitement or even the same anticipation for championships that a revitalized basketball program does.
It's important to remember that UT, regardless of how overwhelmed it looked in the second half against Alabama, still could win the SEC East title. The division is that balanced and that unpredictable.
It's also important to remember that since winning a national championship in 1998, Fulmer's teams often have been at their best when their backs were firmly against the wall. The 5-6 season in 2005 was the exception, not the rule.
Take this season, for example. After a devastating loss to Florida, UT won three consecutive games and looked like a top-10 team in beating Georgia. It's possible this team could win the rest of its games and finish 9-3, maybe even sneak into the conference championship game if Florida stumbles again.
An 8-4 finish would be more plausible. Add a bowl win, and the Vols could match last season's 9-4 record. Moreover, the Vols would return 16 of their 24 starters, including their punter and placekicker, next season.
So fans could be optimistic about improvement, right?
Answer: Not if they consider the competition.
Alabama started only seven seniors on Saturday. Florida is a sophomore- and freshman-laden team. Georgia and South Carolina also will return a large majority of their starters.
With that in mind, I'll give you an early prediction: The Vols will go 8-4 in 2008.
How's that for stability? Or stagnancy?
Sports editor John Adams may be reached at 865-342-6284 or firstname.lastname@example.org.