The coaching staff has changed. Many of the faces have changed. The level of discipline and commitment, supposedly, has changed.
The one thing that hasn't changed is the level of expectations surrounding the Tennessee football program. A team that has made an annual habit of contending for championships plans to do so again in 2006, despite last year's problems on and off the field.
|Erik Ainge will try to regain his '04 confidence, with help from offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe. (Getty Images)|
"I don't know that I feel pressure," Fulmer said. "Obviously, I'm highly in tune right now to what having a poor year last season has meant for all of us.
"But our expectations really haven't changed, and they don't change. We expect to go and compete for the championship and have a great season."
An offseason of turmoil following the 2004 season, including a series of arrests, suspensions and player dismissals and departures, didn't do much to diminish expectations for 2005. The Vols entered the season ranked as high as No. 3 in the polls and talked about contending for the national championship.
Instead, Tennessee finished 5-6, even losing to South Carolina and Vanderbilt down the stretch, and missed out on a winning record and a bowl for the first time under Fulmer.
Fulmer responded by demanding more discipline and commitment from his players. He also made changes on his coaching staff, accepting the resignation of embattled offensive coordinator Randy Sanders and dismissing two other assistants.
Fulmer then brought in former Ole Miss head coach David Cutcliffe as offensive coordinator, rehiring the coach who helped the Vols win the 1998 national championship.
"Sometimes change is good," Fulmer said. "A couple of them should have been made a couple years before that, but that's hard because you're just coming off an Eastern Division championship and some good years.
"But getting to where we got to, we were patching it in some ways and should have made some changes before that. I was talked out of it, actually. But, ultimately, it's all my responsibility."
Cutcliffe has a lot of work to do to restore Tennessee's offensive prowess following a season in which the Vols finished 101st in the nation in scoring (18.6 points per game) and 90th in total offense (326.3 yards per game).
"David added a lot to this staff as far as experience and knowledge of the game," Fulmer said. "Fundamentally, he did a great job of getting our quarterbacks back to where they need to be, or at least closer to where they need to be."
Cutcliffe's most important project involved restoring quarterback Erik Ainge's confidence after Fulmer spent most of the 2005 season making multiple quarterback changes. Fulmer said Cutcliffe brought "a calming effect" to Ainge and the offense in the spring.
"It was a strange, strange year, and I think a lot of things contributed to Erik not having the kind of sophomore season we all expected him to have," Fulmer said.
"I think Erik worked really hard in the spring to regain the confidence of his teammates and his coaches. It was reflected in his numbers during the course of the spring. He was very productive. I think we all saw the talent that he has, and I think he's much closer to being that kind of player."
Cutcliffe and the Vols also have a lot of work to do to rebuild a running game that finished 80th in the nation last year (128.3 yards per game). The return of tailback Arian Foster and offensive tackle Arron Sears give the Vols a good place to start, but the rest of the line has a lot to prove.
On defense, a secondary that has been a concern in recent years could be a strength with four returning starters, but the loss of six starters among the front seven leaves plenty of holes to be filled by talented young players who must grow up quickly.
Even the team discipline still needs some work. Fulmer suspended senior linebacker Marvin Mitchell and backup quarterback Jim Bob Cooter and dismissed redshirt freshman defensive lineman Raymond Henderson for various transgressions in the offseason.
"The sad thing is that it's just a few guys embarrassing us," Fulmer said. "But we're not going to tolerate any of it."
Between last year's record, the team's off-field struggles and the lack of proven players on this year's two-deep depth chart, Fulmer has never faced more pressure to succeed.
He might own a winning percentage of .776, two SEC championships and one national championship, as well as a resume that includes 32 years at Tennessee as a player, assistant coach and head coach, but some critics are already wondering whether Tennessee will come up with the $4.3 million buyout to get rid of Fulmer if the Vols fail to meet expectations this season.
"You have to look at our history of what we've been able to do while we've been here," Fulmer said. "From a loyalty and passion standpoint, there's not anybody out there any more interested in getting it done here than I've been because I'm a Tennessean, a guy that loves the program in every way."