As Tennessee wraps up its preseason training camp and looks toward game week, it's an appropriate time for housekeeping. That includes acknowledging the large elephant in the corner.
It's not going away.
Tennessee's first football season under new coach Lane Kiffin is little more than a week away. But the program is still years away.
That's not meant to temper the excitement that has been building within UT fans for the last eight months. They should be excited.
Kiffin has assembled an exceptional coaching staff, made more recruiting inroads than anyone could have expected in his first year, and revitalized a stale program with the energy and work ethic that Urban Meyer has brought to Florida, and Nick Saban to Alabama.
But he's still years behind his most formidable competition. You don't close that gap with one recruiting class or two.
I believe this staff will be successful. I also believe UT won't be capable of winning an SEC championship before 2012. And the reasons are obvious.
n The overall talent is at a low ebb. Check the last NFL draft (when one UT player was taken) or the last UT season (when the Vols went 5-7).
n There's uncertainty at quarterback. Regardless of whether Jonathan Crompton or Nick Stephens is at quarterback, UT won't rank near the top of the SEC at the most important position.
There's also quarterback uncertainty beyond this season. I expect UT to sign a good quarterback in this recruiting class, but it still will have to develop him.
And how many teams win conference championships with a true freshman quarterback?
n The league's two best programs are at the top of their game, and UT has to play both Florida and Alabama every season.
Florida won the national title last season, and Alabama finished sixth in the final Associated Press poll. That's the first time both teams have finished in the AP top 10 since 1994.
n The SEC schedule will work against the Vols.
Take the 2010 season, for example. Florida and Alabama should still be top-10 programs. Georgia should be, too. And South Carolina will return more starters than any other team in the league.
Also, UT drops Auburn and picks up LSU from the West. That's not a plus. And it gets the Tigers on the road. That's not a plus, either.
Not only will the Vols play more good teams. They will play most of them back-to-back.
UT will play Oregon and Florida in back-to-back home games in September, then take on LSU and Georgia back-to-back on the road in October. After an open date, it will play back-to-back games against Alabama and South Carolina.
The 2011 season is only slightly easier. In September, the Vols will have back-to-back road games against Florida and North Carolina. In October, they will have four consecutive games against Georgia (home), LSU (home), Alabama (road) and South Carolina (home).
Then, in November, UT will pick up Arkansas in Fayetteville. Based on what coach Bobby Petrino did in his first season, the Hogs will be a bigger challenge then than they are now.
So it's likely that in both 2010 and 2011, UT will have to play the top three teams from the West.
Those are the kind of obstacles UT will have to overcome in the next three years.
I realize college football rarely proceeds according to form. Programs lose key players to injury and early entry into the NFL. Coaches go pro, too.
And the way Kiffin has recruited can speed up the timetable on UT's rebuilding. In fact, just one freshman player can shake up the established order or at least prop up a sagging program. Freshman Herschel Walker turned Georgia into a national champion in 1980. Freshman Peyton Manning saved UT from a potentially disastrous season in 1994. Freshmen Tim Tebow and Percy Harvin helped Florida win a national title in 2006.
Imagine where UT would have been in 2000 if Casey Clausen hadn't been ready to play as a true freshman. You could say the same for 2004 when freshman quarterbacks Erik Ainge and Brent Schaeffer played well enough for UT to make the SEC championship game.
Kiffin's first recruiting class obviously has tremendous potential. His second class is shaping up nicely. But Alabama and Florida aren't exactly struggling in recruiting themselves.
And they had a head start.
Sports editor John Adams may be reached at 865-342-6284 or email@example.com.