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Tennessee's Butch Jones steadily building Volunteers into a powerhouse

Tennessee's Butch Jones steadily building Volunteers into a powerhouse
VolunteersCoach Butch Jonesworks with linemen during a practice on Tuesday in Knoxville, Tenn. (Amy Smotherman Burgess / Associated Press)

The Times' annual college football countdown continues its march toward No. 1 with our pick today for No. 20.

The last 7-6 Tennessee team that got me this excited was the 2009 squad led by Lane Kiffin, a bright young star who replaced tired old Phil Fulmer.

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The fire in Kiffin's eyes illuminated the Knoxville skyline as he appeared to be the necessary jolt needed to stir up Southeastern Conference recruiting wars and stop, in his tracks, Nick Saban at Alabama.

Tennessee loved the young Kiffin and his beautiful wife.

That was then....

Today's fans have used around-the-clockwork orange group therapy to block out 2009. Some deny Kiffin ever lived or worked there.

He was real, though, and history might have forever changed on Oct. 24, 2009, if not for the long, thick arm of an Alabama defensive lineman Terrence Cody.

Tennessee trailed by two in the closing seconds at Tuscaloosa and was set up for a 44-yard, game-winning field goal.

The plot was foiled, however, when Cody reached up to block the attempt, one of two kick blocks he had for the day.

Imagine the sight of Kiffin being carried off the field in Bear Bryant's backyard.

There might have been a statue erected for Kiffin by the time the return flight landed in Knoxville.

Instead, Alabama prevailed and won that season the first of three national titles (so far) under Saban.

Instead of a hero, Kiffin became a pariah when he bolted Tennessee, after one year, for USC.

Tennessee hired Derek Dooley and went 6-7, 5-7 and 5-7.

Those almost-glory days of 2009 seem like a long time ago, but Tennessee has found its footing under third-year Coach Butch Jones, who is steadily building the Volunteers back into a potential powerhouse.

Tennessee finished 7-6 last year with the youngest team at the Football Bowl Subdivision level, capping the season with a 45-28 win over Iowa in the TaxSlayer Bowl.

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The Vols return eight starters on defense and 10 on offense, including quarterback Joshua Dobbs, an emerging star in a conference that lost most of its top quarterbacks.

Tennessee is trending up after winning four of its last five games in 2014.

So what, in Knoxville, is not to like?

Jones was a rock-solid coaching hire who followed Brian Kelly at Central Michigan and Cincinnati.

Tennessee is young and talented, with 64% of its roster made up of players with one year or less in the program.

Jones is doing, and saying, all the right things.

"We can't be just a year older," he said this summer. "We have to be a year better. We have to be a year wiser."

The SEC Eastern Division is wide open, with Florida and South Carolina slumping, Georgia looking for a quarterback and few believing Missouri capable of winning a third straight title.

Tennessee is still thin at wide receiver and very young (but talented) on the defensive front. October will be critical to the season, as the Vols host Arkansas and Georgia and then, after a bye week, make a critical visit to Alabama.

The date of that game, for what it's worth, is Oct. 24.

Tennessee hopes the outcome will be different than in 2009. Terrence Cody won't be on the field, for one, and Lane Kiffin will be working the other side as Alabama's second-year offensive coordinator.

The top 25 so far: 25. Michigan; 24. Nebraska; 23. Utah; 22. Missouri; 21. Arkansas.

Twitter: @DufresneLATimes

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