Once-mighty Tennessee Vols have modest goals this football season

07/15/2014 11:58 PM

07/15/2014 11:58 PM

For nearly any generation of Tennessee fans, the program’s current malaise is difficult to fathom.

Teams from previous eras set their sights on Southeastern Conference titles. This season, players talk about reaching the postseason for the first time since 2010.

“Our goal is to get to a bowl game,” said offensive lineman Mack Crowder. “I believe that’s where we need to be.”

The Vols haven’t posted a winning SEC record since 2007. A year later, coach Phil Fulmer, who won the first BCS National Championship in 1998, was fired. The program is on its third head coach, Butch Jones, since then.

This probably isn’t the year Tennessee gets over the hump. The Vols lost their entire starting offensive and defensive lines.

“We’re not at the norm in terms of having to replace a third of our team,” Jones said. “We’re having to replace almost half of our team.”

A place to start might be the Vanderbilt game. Tennessee is 71-11-2 in the series since 1928 but has dropped two straight to the Commodores for the first time since 1925-26.

Maroon-faced defense

In leading the Southeastern Conference in scoring offense for the second straight year, Texas A&M made nearly every game entertaining … and close.

The Aggies’ defense last season was ragged. The Johnny Manziel-fueled offense piled up points out of necessity, because defensively A&M was awful, ranking last in scoring and total defense.

“I mean, could we get much worse?” asked senior cornerback Deshazor Everett.

After surrendering more than 40 points in a game four times, probably not.

“To give up as many points as we did as a defense was embarrassing,” Everett said.

A vote for rivalries

South Carolina Coach Steve Spurrier is big on non-conference rivalries. He was asked about Texas A&M’s staying power in the SEC, but used the opportunity to lament the end of the Aggies’ rivalry with Texas, which occurred when A&M left the Big 12 for the SEC.

“I think it’s a shame … they don’t play each other,” Spurrier said. “Two schools that have been playing for over 100 years, just because one of them joins another conference, get mad at each other, and it’s: ‘We’re not playing you anymore.’ I think it’s sad.

“Florida plays Florida State. We play Clemson. Georgia plays Georgia Tech. We’re in different conferences but we’re in-state rivals. The fans want to see that.”

Spurrier didn’t, but he could have included the Kansas-Missouri Border War in his mention.

He did offer this about the Aggies, specific to coach Kevin Sumlin, who signed a deal worth $5 million annually after last season: “Kevin Sumlin has an excellent record as a coach. He’s a good negotiator, we know that also.”

Fútbol Media Day?

It was a SEC Media Days first: A coach breaking down European soccer.

“Liverpool traded (Luis) Suarez to Barcelona,” Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said Tuesday. “A lot of offense gone from Liverpool.”

Mullen comes by his soccer interest through family. His mother is a British citizen, and he grew up paying attention to fútbol as well as football.

“I don’t mind waking up early Sunday morning and watching the Premiership if you have a little bit of a break,” Mullen said.

The World Cup was big in his household, and Mullen sees a connection between the sports he loves.

“I think SEC football could be compared to European soccer,” he said. “The passion our fans have is equal. I’m sure I’ll have a lot of European nations upset ... (but) one of the things that makes this league so much fun is the passion our fan bases have for football is similar to watching the passion European soccer teams and their followings have.”

To reach Blair Kerkhoff, call 816-234-4730 or send email to bkerkhoff@kcstar.com. Follow him at twitter.com/BlairKerkhoff.

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