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Are we sure Tennessee is really 'one hire away'?

Well, here we are again. As Tennessee embarks upon yet another reboot of Volunteer football, the line is being trotted back out once more: that Tennessee is one hire away from being back on top. That this job is a gold mine for the right guy. That Tennessee is among the relative handful of programs with the potential to win a national championship and can do so again with the right hire.

As if Tennessee football is an object that can snap back into place no matter how many seasons it spends removed from college football's elite.

And here I am wondering how many times we have to tell ourselves this before we stop to wonder if it's still true.

The common comparison to current-day Tennessee is pre-Saban Alabama.

Without delving into the relative mess of the two programs -- at least Tennessee has never had to fire a coach before his first game and has not, as of yet, been barred from the postseason by violations -- this ignores two key points.

The first is that Alabama was never as down as Tennessee, and certainly not for long.

For the 14 season between 1993 (the year following its 1992 national title) and 2006 (the final pre-Saban year), Alabama won an SEC title, appeared in five New Year's Day bowl games and experienced just three losing seasons. As recently as 2005, the Crimson Tide won the Cotton Bowl and finished No. 8 in the AP poll.

Compare that to the 13 seasons from Tennessee's last SEC East title and today: no SEC/division titles, three New Year's Day bowl appearances, eight losing seasons. The Vols have more sub-.500 seasons than bowl appearances, and their highest AP Top 25 finish is No. 22.

Since 2008, Tennessee has more in common with Vanderbilt than Alabama.

This brings us to point No. 2: There's only one Nick Saban. No one knows where Alabama is today had Saban not taken the job, but it's safe to say the program isn't sitting on a pile of six national championship trophies in 12 seasons. The Crimson Tide struck gold with the greatest college football coach of all time, and there's no Saban clone out there waiting to rescue Volunteer football. And even if there was a Saban 2.0 waiting in the wings, who's to say he takes this job right now? The next Tennessee job will inherit not only a program coming off three losing seasons in four years, a roster in flux and a program in turmoil, they're also staring down the barrel of likely NCAA sanctions. UT chancellor Donde Plowman said Monday university counsel has informed her Tennessee is looking a Level I or Level II violations. "We don't know exactly how many," she said.

There's also the on-the-ground reality that Tennessee is the only program in college football that must face Alabama, Georgia and Florida on an annual basis. The state of Tennessee does not produce enough homegrown talent to sustain an SEC contender, which means the next Vols coach will have to out-recruit Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Clemson and the remainder of college football's who's who in Florida and Georgia.

It remains true that Tennessee is willing to spend like its competitors and has resources comparable to the SEC elite, and for that reason there's no reason to believe Tennessee can't be better than this. Surely the Vols can regularly return to bowl games, that isn't the question here.

But if the next Tennessee coach does not bring back the glory days of the '90s, are we going to tell ourselves his successor can do it? Is the reality of Tennessee football closer to what the program was at its absolute peak, or what it's shown itself to be over the last decade-plus?