Wednesday, July 23, 2014 · 7:45 p.m.
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Former Tennessee head football coach Phillip Fulmer, seen here in his final season with the Vols in 2008. (AP Photo/Mary Ann Chastain, File)

NOTE: This is part one of a three-part series examining the big picture of where Tennessee’s football program stands. The Vols are on a bye week, but the remaining seven games of the season could determine the fate of coach Derek Dooley and the future direction of the program.

Part 1: How did Tennessee get where it is? Who/what's to blame?

Part 2: Where does Tennessee currently stand as a program? How far away is it from national significance?

Part 3: Where are the Vols headed? What could the next few years look like?

KNOXVILLE – It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact the moment the University of Tennessee’s storied football program slowly began to decline.

The Vols won the BCS title in 1998, and were regular SEC contenders from the mid-1990s through the early 2000s. Since 2008, their record is 26-29 with only two bowl appearances, both losses. 

Perhaps the decline started in 2001 when the Vols played LSU for the SEC Championship. A win for the favored Vols would have sent them to the Rose Bowl for a chance to win their second BCS title in four years. Instead, LSU, playing much of the game with backup quarterback Matt Mauck, won 31-20.

Maybe it was the 2005 season. The Vols dropped four straight games in the middle of the schedule and fell to Vanderbilt for the first time since 1982, ending the season with a 5-6 record.

But After a couple years of heading back in the right direction, the wheels fell off again in 2008. A 5-7 campaign that season ultimately led to the resignation of former coach Phillip Fulmer.

This is when major changes to the stable Tennessee program began to unfold.

Fulmer was succeeded in 2009 by Lane Kiffin, a promising young coach who had built a reputation as an offensive expert in his time as a coordinator at Southern California and as the head coach of the Oakland Raiders.

Kiffin brought his father, legendary NFL defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, along to handle the defense. He brought in a staff full of recruiting aces such as Ed Orgeron, Frank Wilson and Eddie Gran. Recruits like Bryce Brown, the No. 1 player in the nation, began to flock to Kiffin and his staff. Though the Vols had big wins over Georgia and South Carolina, there was plenty of bad publicity along the way. Player arrests, an NCAA investigation and several outlandish comments made by Kiffin vilified him across the SEC.

Kiffin quickly changed from a national villain to public enemy No. 1 in Knoxville on the night of January 13, 2010. That’s when he accepted the head-coaching job at USC after Pete Carroll departed to coach the Seattle Seahawks. The timing of his departure put Tennessee in a bind. With less than a month remaining before National Signing Day, a national coaching search was launched while interim head coach Kippy Brown watched over the program.

Names such as Air Force head coach Troy Calhoun, Duke head coach David Cutcliffe and Houston head coach Kevin Sumlin were thrown around as options. Eventually, AD Mike Hamilton settled on Derek Dooley, a lesser-known head coach at Louisiana Tech who was better known for being the son of Georgia coaching legend Vince Dooley and for being an assistant to Alabama coach Nick Saban when he was at LSU.

Some of the shock wore off when fans heard from Dooley the first time. He was eloquent, Southern and focused on running his program the right way; all of which seemed to be opposite of Kiffin, at least in the eyes of the Tennessee fan base.

Dooley’s first season, 2010, really went as well as could’ve been expected. The Vols finished 6-7, but despite a young roster, bizarre and painstakingly close losses at LSU and against North Carolina in the Music City Bowl narrowly prevented what could’ve been a veryimpressive debut season.

That optimism spilled into 2011. Led by returning quarterback Tyler Bray, the Vols faced a tough schedule, but also were picked by many to take the next step and win seven or eight games.

It didn’t take long for the season to head the opposite direction. Defensive back Janzen Jackson, perhaps the Vols most talented defender, was dismissed from the program a week before the season opener. Linebacker Herman Lathers was unable to overcome a fractured ankle suffered in the spring. Ultra-talented receiver Justin Hunter went down in the third game with a torn ACL and was lost for the season. Bray also missed the most difficult stretch of the season with a broken thumb.

The Vols sat at 4-6 with games against Vanderbilt and Kentucky remaining. They needed to win both to be eligible for a bowl. They didn’t. They escaped Vanderbilt with an overtime victory, but the Wildcats ended a 26-game losing streak in the series with a 10-7 win. Kentucky was led by Matt Roark, a wide receiver who was forced to play quarterback due to the other two quarterbacks being injured.

Regardless of when the program began to slip, that loss to Kentucky was a new low for the Vols.

The second part of this series will look more at what Tennessee has done since that point, but what caused the Vols to get there in the first place? Who or what is to blame?

Those are loaded questions that can’t fully be typed out in a few hundred words, but a few key moments stuck out while writing the narrative of the Vols’ recent history:

1. Recruiting: It’s the lifeblood of a major college program, and there was shortage in it throughout this unstable period. The signing classes from 2007-09 were the most devastating to the program.

The 2007 class was one of the highest-rated groups the Vols have ever had. It simply didn’t pan out. Only one of the five five-star prospects (per Rivals.com ranking) turned into a star (Eric Berry). The others either left the program or turned into a role player.

The 2008 class was one of the lowest-ranked groups in recent history, and only 12 players are either still with the program or completed their eligibility. Offensive guard Dallas Thomas might be the only player in that class who is drafted.

Kiffin’s lone full recruiting class, 2009, might be the worst of the three. Despite being ranked in the top 10 by some recruiting services, less that a third of the class remains on the roster. None are likely to be drafted.

2. Attrition/injuries: Both are a fact of life for all college football programs, but they’ve hit Tennessee extremely hard. It started before Dooley arrived.

Brown, quarterback B.J. Coleman, running back Lennon Creer, receiver Ahmad Paige, quarterback Nick Stephens, offensive tackle Aaron Douglas, safety Darren Myles, receiver Nu’Keese Richardson, cornerback Mike Edwards are only some of the talented players who left or were kicked off the team between 2008 and 2010.

In addition to the major injuries and the loss of Jackson in 2011, Dooley has also seen the departure of wide receiver DeAnthony Arnett, receiver Da’Rick Rogers, tight end Cam Clear and has already lost top safety Brian Randolph for the 2012 season with a torn ACL. Likely starting cornerback Izauea Lanier was also lost for 2012 with academic issues.

3. Lack of talent and experience on the lines: This season is the first time the offensive line has been led by a group of talented upperclassmen since before Fulmer left. Offensive line recruiting from 2008-09 had not panned out at all. Dallas Thomas is the only offensive lineman from those two classes who stayed in the program and has become a major contributor.

Defensively, the Vols have struggled to sign and develop quality linemen out of high school. They have brought in several junior college players to fill in the gaps, but the addition of Omari Hand to the 2012 class was the first four-star or higher rated defensive tackle the Vols have signed straight out of high school in more than 10 years. While the overall level of talent has been lower on the roster, the lack of star power on both sides of the line has been a big part of the team’s inability to sustain success.

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This brief history isn’t an exhaustive look at all the struggles Tennessee has faced in recent years, but it should give some context for where the Vols are right now as a program and how they got there. Check back later this week for part two: A more in-depth look at the current state of the program.

Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee football for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @Daniel_LewisCBS.

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