Tennessee is a school that's still getting used to getting beaten up. Yes, it's already been four years of having a losing season, but Tennessee hasn't been on a garbage streak like this since prior to the 1979 season, another year when they were coming off four straight seasons without a bowl appearance. For a school in the (relative) south, to be a big name college and still be losers is simply unheard of, and hard to imagine.
What makes a big name program like Tennessee lose? How does this happen? Let's take a look at every Tennessee losing season since 1980, and try to find a common thread... of crap.
Head Coach: Johnny Majors
Notable Players: Willie Gault (WR/KR/PR)
Majors actually had the program on the upswing, leading the team to the Bluebonnet Bowl in 1979. He would continue the upswing after this season, but 1980 would be another lost year. The season started out rough, with losses against #16 Georgia and #5 Southern Cal, led by Herschel Walker and Marcus Allen, respectively. Tennessee would rally, though, ripping off three straight wins, before dropping four straight, including a 30-6 loss against Dan Marino's Pitt Panthers. The season would end with two straight wins over rivals Kentucky and Vanderbilt, though, and Majors would lead the team to seven straight bowl appearances... until 1988.
Head Coach: Johnny Majors
Notable Players: Reggie Cobb (RB)
In 1987, Tennessee capped off a 10-2-1 season by winning the Peach Bowl, their third straight bowl victory, and their seventh straight bowl appearance. 1988 looked just as bright, as the Vols brought back their starting quarterback (Jeff Francis), starting running back (Cobb), and number one and two wide receivers (Thomas Woods & Terence Cleveland). Repeat success was not to be, however, as the Vols lost their first six games, then rebounded with five straight wins. They weren't exactly running into any kind of buzzsaw during those first six games, they just had a poor defense. Steve Spurrier's Duke team beat the Volunteers, 31-26. The next season, Tennessee would return to its winning ways, going 11-1 and emerging victorious in the Cotton Bowl, their first of 16 straight bowl appearances.
Head Coach: Phillip Fulmer
Notable Players: Arian Foster (RB), Robert Meachem (WR)
During the early part of the 1992 season, Majors was forced to have heart surgery, leaving control of the team to offensive coordinator Phil Fulmer. After Majors' return in the middle of the season, rumors began to swirl that Fulmer, who had led the team to three straight wins and was very popular with fans and players alike, would replace Majors as the head coach the next season. Majors wouldn't even last that long, resigning as the coach of a winning team, while Fulmer led the Vols to a victory in the Hall of Fame Bowl. Fulmer would lead Tennessee to its highest highs, as the team became one of the most feared in the 90s. 1998 would be the peak for Fulmer, as he rode prized quarterback Tee Martin (not Peyton Manning. Crazy right?) to a national championship. Seven years later, it was a different story.
Coming off back-to-back 10-3 seasons, Tennessee was not a creampuff team by any stretch. One of the bright spots of this season, in fact, was a 30-27 victory over JaMarcus Russell, Dwayne Bowe, and Joseph Addai's LSU team. It would be the lone bright spot of the season, and one of the team's better performances in the SEC. I mean, when you're going up against the likes of D.J. Shockley, Brodie Croyle, Brady Quinn, and Jay Cutler, there's not much you can do except cower in fear.
Head Coach: Phillip Fulmer
Notable Players: Arian Foster (RB), Eric Berry (DB)
Did you know Arian Foster only had one rushing touchdown all season? How does that happen? He played in every game except one this season, and only ran for 570 yards. When you can't utilize your player to his maximum potential, especially when that player is Arian Foster, you have deficiencies as a coach. Once it became clear the season was a train wreck, Fulmer agreed to step down as head coach at the end of the season, thus paving the way for The Cho-Cho-Chosen One, Lane Kiffin.
Head Coach: Derek Dooley
Notable Players: Uh, Tyler Bray? Tauren Poole?
The way people talk about Lane Kiffin, you'd think he's the worst thing to ever happen to football coaching. Fact: Lane Kiffin has never had a losing season as the head coach of a college football team. Even when he was fired midway through his final year at USC, the Trojans were 3-2. Lane Kiffin: A Coach That Wins (Most of the Time)
So when Kiffin ditched the 7-6 Vols for Southern Cal's gobs of money, Tennessee went with Derek Dooley, fresh off a 4-8 season with Louisiana Tech. Yes, Tennessee hired a losing coach of a basement-level team to coach a program that suddenly had a hard time staying above .500, and definitely wasn't used to losing. Dooley patched together a 6-7 bowl team in 2010, with a loss in the Music City Bowl. It was all downhill from there.
Head Coach: Derek Dooley & Jim Chaney
Notable Players: Cordarelle Patterson (Wild Card)
Tennessee was actually ranked 23rd going into their third game, after picking up wins against juggernauts North Carolina State and Georgia State. But then they encountered #18 Florida, and the devastating buzzsaw that is... Jeff Driskel?! What the hell? The Vols let that schmo throw for multiple touchdowns against them! Florida game aside, they did have a ridiculously hard SEC schedule, dealing with Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, Mississippi State (hey, they had Dak Prescott then, too), and two rising programs in Mizzou and Vanderbilt. Tennessee's sole SEC victory that year came at the end of the season, a drubbing they dealt to Kentucky under the helm of interim head coach Jim Chaney. Yes, it took until the last game of the season for Derek Dooley to be fired. I'm starting to think the decision-makers at Tennessee might be more of a problem than we realize.
Head Coach: Butch Jones
Hey, at least they got two SEC wins last year! That's technically improvement! Aside from their victories against South Carolina and Kentucky, though, Tennessee just took it to creampuffs, demolishing Austin Peay, Western Kentucky, and South Alabama. But this was also the first year of people talking about Tennessee's future in a more positive light. Butch Jones is a well-liked coach, and there seems to be a general good atmosphere surrounding the team. I'll maintain that it's good for football business if Tennessee is a talented team... so long as they lose to South Carolina every year.