Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - It wasn't long ago the Tennessee Volunteers were considered one of the nation's elite programs, having earned a trip to a bowl game in every season from 1989-2004, including a perfect 1998 campaign en route to the BCS National Championship.
However, recent seasons haven't been very kind to the Vols, especially since Phillip Fulmer (152-52 career record at the program) was relieved of his duties following the 2008 campaign. After Lane Kiffin bolted from his post for USC following the 2009 season, the program handed the reins over to Derek Dooley, who went just 15-21 before being fired in 2012.
The coaching carousel continued last offseason when the team introduced former Central Michigan and Cincinnati head coach Butch Jones as its new leader, and the first year of his regime was much of the same for the Vols, who finished under .500 (5-7) for the fourth consecutive season.
Although the team's on-field performance last season may appear hollow on the surface, it was an admirable showing for a young team under the tutelage of a first-year head coach. The Vols had one of the most treacherous schedules in the nation, with six of their seven losses coming against nationally ranked opponents, and along the way they earned an outstanding, 23-21 victory over 11th-ranked South Carolina on Oct. 19.
It has been a long time coming, but it appears that Tennessee is poised to take another step forward in 2014.
The initial steps in the turnaround came last offseason, as Jones made a mark early in his tenure by bringing in a top-25 recruiting class, and several of those first-year players paid immediate dividends during the 2013 season.
Wide receiver Marquez North caught 38 passes for a team-high 496 receiving yards. Cameron Sutton started all 12 games at cornerback and recorded 39 tackles, two interceptions and nine passes defended. Joshua Dobbs saw late- season action at quarterback, although he completed less than 60 percent of his 121 passes attempts for 695 yards, two touchdowns and six interceptions.
Tennessee's journey back toward the SEC's upper echelon continued with this most recent recruiting season, as its incoming freshman class ranked fifth-best in the country, according to both Rivals.com and ESPN, and its 35 commitments were more than any other program.
"We feel this class will represent Tennessee in a very positive manner on and off the field," Jones said of his recruiting class. "One of the things that we looked at is size and speed. Make no mistake about it, a few months ago I sat up here and told you in order for us to move this program forward, we needed to create depth, we needed to create competition and we needed to improve our overall team speed, our size, our quickness, (and) our explosiveness. I believe we were able to do that."
The Vols' highest-profile recruit is Josh Malone, a five-star wide receiver who stands 6-foot-3 and 195 pounds and will join North in a receiving corps that has lacked explosion since Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson left early for the NFL two seasons ago. They also brought in one of the best running back prospects in the country, Jalen Hurd (6-3, 230), who will have a great chance at snaps in his first season with the departure of the graduated Rajion Neal (1,124 yards, 12 touchdowns in 2013).
Tennessee also bolstered its defense with the incoming class, and the unit certainly needs plenty of help after allowing 29 points per game and 418.4 yards per game a season ago. Defensive backs Todd Kelly Jr., Evan Berry, Rashaan Gaulden, D'Andre Payne and Cortz McDowell, linebackers Dillon Bates and Gavin Bryant, and defensive linemen Dewayne Hendrix, Michael Sawyers and Joe Henderson all have the capability of hitting the field in the upcoming season and will make up an outstanding corp moving forward.
One thing in particular stands out with the Vols' latest recruiting class, however: Among their 35 recruits, they didn't bring aboard a single quarterback, a peculiar move considering their inconsistencies at the position all season.
Even before he was lost for the season in late October with a thumb injury, junior signal caller Justin Worley underwhelmed, completing just 55.6 percent of his passes for 1,239 yards with 10 touchdowns and eight interceptions.
Dobbs, a true freshman, started the final four games of the season, while redshirt freshman Nathan Peterman (10-of-23, 45 yards, two interceptions) was worked in sparingly.
The decision by Jones and his staff to not bring in another quarterback may appear to be a head-scratcher on the surface, but it was certainly a calculated move, and a statement by the program that it has the utmost confidence in its returning crop of QBs.
"When I look at the state of our program and where we're at, I feel very comfortable with the quarterbacks that we have in our football program right now," Jones said. "We have very good youth at that position, and that could afford us to put that scholarship towards another position and move it forward."
Of course, ascending the SEC ranks is going to be difficult when the conference is on another playing field compared to the rest of the FBS. Already considered to be unquestionably the top conference in the nation, the SEC added to its stature this offseason by dominating the recruiting trail, as seven of the top nine classes and 10 of the top 20 came out of the conference, according to Rivals.com, with perennial powers Alabama and LSU situated at No. 1 and 2, respectively.
Despite the uphill climb in the SEC, Jones knows it comes with the territory. He appears up for the challenge, too.
"It's the nature of our conference, and that's why it's the most competitive conference in the country," Jones said. "It's the weekly grind. There are no off weeks in our conference. In everything you do, you compete. Whether it's on the field (or) off the field in recruiting, it's the best of the best. ... That's what makes coaching and playing in the SEC special and also very challenging."
Don't expect the Vols to compete for a national championship anytime soon, but with Jones' clear focus and an impressive multi-year plan in place, Tennessee is on the upswing and will be an exciting young squad to keep an eye on.