Editor's note: The spectacle that is SEC media days ended earlier this week. But with the newly-expanded four-day media event over, we're at a bit of a loss. Fall camp is still weeks away; the regular season is even further, with the 2014 campaign kicking off at the end of August. So what better time to roll out the preseason power rankings among teams in the SEC?
With that in mind, we'll count down the teams from worst to first. The format will involve a "best-case/worst-case" scenario for each team, taking our a page out of former War Eagle Extra beat writer Andy Bitter's playbook from 2010. (One final note: Please, as Bitter said four years ago, remember all scenarios "are meant to be hyperbolic.")
No. 11: Tennessee
For only the second time in his seven-year career to this point, Butch Jones finished a season with a losing record. But if trends hold, Tennessee might have reason to smile this fall. The last time Jones finished under .500, he went 4-8 in his first season at Cincinnati in 2008. The following year, the Bearcats went 10-3 and were co-champions of the Big East Conference.
Obviously, the Southeastern Conference is a mite bit tougher than the former Big East. But despite going 5-7 in his debut season with the Volunteers last year, there are signs of optimism. Two of those losses — Georgia and Vanderbilt — easily could have gone the other way. They let a near-victory versus the then-No. 6 Bulldogs slip away, as Aaron Murray connected on a game-tying touchdown pass with five seconds to play. Then the Volunteers stubbed their toe in overtime when receiver Alton "Pig" Howard fumbled, leading to a turnover and the eventual game-winning field goal for Georgia.
In the Vanderbilt game, Commodores quarterback Patton Robinette scored with 16 seconds remaining — faking a jump pass! — to hand the Volunteers a 14-10 defeat.
And in light of Tennessee's schedule, which saw them face a mind-numbing seven ranked teams in an eight-game stretch (including five straight versus teams in the top 11), a 5-7 showing last year isn't too shabby.
With the schedule every bit as daunting on paper in 2014, can the Volunteers make it back above .500 for the first time since 2009?
Best-case scenario: The postseason drought stops at three. After missing a bowl last season, it marked the longest stretch out of the postseason for Tennessee since it sat at home four straight times from 1975-78. In 2014, the Volunteers clinch a spot in the middle of November, and while admittedly later than most fans would like, they're just excited to have somewhere to travel to once January arrives. Just like last season, the Volunteers play musical quarterbacks, switching between Justin Worley and Joshua Dobbs. And just like last season, they start 2-0, with wins over a pair of quality "non-Power 5 conference" opponents in Utah State and Arkansas State. What's different about this year is that despite the revolving door at quarterback, Tennessee overcomes it with its plethora of playmakers at the skill positions.
Marlin Lane and super-freshman Jalen Hurd give the Vols a potent 1-2 punch in the backfield. The Volunteers receiving corps is filled to the brim with talent, from Howard to new additions Von Pearson and Josh Malone to the sophomore trio of Marquez North, Jason Croom and Josh Smith.
For all its potential, Oklahoma shows Tennessee it is still a year from contending with the elite teams in the nation in Game No. 3, as the Sooners stampede to a 45-24 victory. Tennessee gets back untracked, however, stringing together wins against Georgia, Florida and Chattanooga. Only one win separates the Volunteers from bowl eligibility now.
But the Volunteers are forced to wait a whole month for that victory, as they take three consecutive losses: Ole Miss, Alabama (again) and South Carolina.
When Kentucky comes to town on Nov. 15, however, Tennessee is ready to take out some frustration — and it shows. The Volunteers decimate the Wildcats 56-7. It's the third-most lopsided score in the history of the series, trailing only Kentucky's 56-0 rout in 1893 (ironically, the first meeting between the two) and Tennessee's own 52-0 shutout in 1994. In the ensuing weeks, the Volunteers dispatch both Missouri and Vanderbilt, giving them eight wins in a regular season for the first time since 2007, which doubled as the last time they won the SEC East.
This time around, there's no SEC championship game appearance, but with its head-to-head win over Georgia, Tennessee finishes second in the Eastern Division. All the Volunteers care about is that they're going bowlin', though, and their destination is Tampa, Fla., for the Outback Bowl. Squaring off against Iowa for only the third time, the Volunteers outclass their plodding Big Ten opponent, waltzing to a 41-10 triumph.
Nine wins and a bowl victory only bolster Tennessee's brand. Already recruiting at a high level, the season helps the Volunteers bring in a top three class for 2015. Of greater import to Tennessee's fan base, the program is one step closer to getting back where it wants to be: in the thick of the SEC and national title chase.
Worst-case scenario: The postseason drought is extended another year. Worse, the Volunteers take a step back from last year's 5-7 record by posting a 4-8 mark in 2014. Just like last season, the Volunteers can't settle on a quarterback, constantly going back and forth between Worley and Dobbs. And just like last season, it doesn't mean much in the opening two games, as they start 2-0. Even so, both games come down to the wire, with Tennessee having to make stops in the final minutes to stave off Utah State and Arkansas State.
And once the rest of their gauntlet of a slate kicks in, Tennessee's season capsizes. It loses badly to Oklahoma and Georgia in back-to-back weeks (both on the road) and aren't able to stop the bleeding when Florida comes to town, falling to the Gators for a mind-blowing 10th consecutive time.
Sure, Tennessee picks up its guaranteed win against Chattanooga, but that's followed by another three-game losing streak: Ole Miss, Alabama (again) and South Carolina. The Volunteers narrowly pull out a win versus Kentucky to avoid going winless in the conference, but they limp to the finish line after defeats to Missouri and Vanderbilt to close out the season.
Even with the 4-8 showing, Tennessee nabs another top-10 recruiting class come February. But that's of little solace to the Volunteer faithful. They'd prefer the top-10 finishes happen on the field instead.
And there are other numbers they're focusing on, none flattering.
With yet another losing season on their hands, the Volunteers set a school record for futility; never in the storied annals of the program had they finished with more losses than wins five years in a row.
Consider that in Tennessee's football history dating back to 1891, there had only been three occasions when the team finished under .500 in three or more consecutive seasons. To wit: All of these predated Woodrow Wilson's time as president.
Those occurrences were from 1909-11 (1-6-2 in 1909, 3-5-1 in 1910 and 3-4-2 in 1911), 1891-93 (0-1 in 1891, 2-5 in 1892 and 2-4 in 1893) and in the closest comparison to these unfertile modern times, the Volunteers were sub-.500 four years running from 1903-06 (4-5 in 1903, 3-5-1 in 1904, 3-5-1 in 1905 and 1-6-2 in 1906).
And it's every bit as depressing when it turns to postseason statistics.
Since the SEC was founded in 1933, the Volunteers have rarely missed out on the postseason; it's even rarer for them to miss out in consecutive years. But this four-year absence is tied for the second-longest in that span. Tennessee didn't play in a bowl from 1975-78 and had another dry spell between 1947-49. But nothing compares to the seven-year sabbatical from bowl appearances from 1958-64.
And as Vols fans are well-aware, nearly all of those above numbers come with an asterisk. Many of those seasons noted above — take 1949 (7-2-1) or 1960 (6-2-2) or 1975 (7-5) — had the Volunteers end above .500 in the regular season. But before the explosion of bowls, many teams with winning records simply had no place to go.
In that vein, it's safe to say Tennessee fans are witnessing the worst period of football in a century.