KNOXVILLE – Tennessee football lore says that General Robert Neyland was hired in 1926 and was charged to “even the score” with Vanderbilt, a program that had a commanding 18-2-2 advantage in the series at that point.
That daunting challenge was completed by The General with some help from the fill-in coaches who took over during his military leaves. The Vols put up a 16-3-2 mark against the Commodores during Neyland's tenure and by the time he was done coaching the Vols in 1952, the Vols held the series advantage.
His successors had no problem carrying on that momentum. The Vols currently hold a 73-29-5 in the series.
Eighty-seven years later, the program has fallen behind its biggest rivals again. Vanderbilt isn’t the main concern, though the Commodores have narrowed the gap over the past decade and broke though with a 41-18 win over UT last year in Derek Dooley’s final game as head coach.
But after holding comfortable advantages against almost every SEC rival throughout the ‘90s and early 2000s (with Florida being the most notable exception), the Vols find themselves in an ever-growing hole against the current SEC head coaches.
Consider some of these facts:
• Tennessee has a 14-34 record against the head coaches on its schedule next year.
• Tennessee has a 15-39 record against all current head coaches in the SEC.
• Tennessee has a 13-25 record against current SEC East head coaches.
• Tennessee has a 1-10 record against the current head coaches at Alabama and Florida.
• Tennessee can’t claim a winning record over any current SEC head coach.
Enter Butch Jones. The first-year UT head coach has done nothing in Knoxville to be mentioned in the same coaching breath as Neyland yet, but his task looks just as daunting.
Haven't played: Sumlin, Freeze, Malzahn, Stoops, Bielema
Instead of evening the score with Vandy, he must return Tennessee to the upper echelon of the SEC, and he must do that against a group of coaches that look much different than what former coach Phillip Fulmer dealt with during UT’s strong run under his charge.
Next year, UT faces coaches with a combined 498-180-3 record and five national championships – and that’s just in the first half of its SEC schedule. It doesn’t appear that the competition is getting any easier. Hugh Freeze of Ole Miss and Kevin Sumlin of Texas A&M both had impressive SEC debuts in 2012.
Gus Malzahn returns to Auburn after his offense led the Tigers to a national title in 2010. Bret Bielema brings three Big 10 titles to Arkansas, while even Kentucky, a school UT has regularly depended on dominating, seems to have found an upgrade in Mark Stoops.
It took Neyland a few years to get the Vols going in the right direction. They fell to Vandy 20-3 in 1926 and tied the Commodores 7-7 in 1927 before turning the tide in the series.
Jones will need time too if he’s to begin to catch up with the likes of Saban, Spurrier, Richt, Miles and Muschamp. It won’t happen in Year 1 and probably not in Year 2 either.
But if he does make significant progress in UT’s record against the SEC’s current coaching royalty, he will make a case to be considered among the best who have ever coached in Knoxville.
Perhaps there’s even a statue waiting for him if he can even up UT's records against the league's top coaches and get UT back to a place of regularly competing with and beating anybody in the conference. Don’t expect any stadium name changes, though.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee football for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga