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In the spirit of Thanksgiving, it's time to stick a fork in this turkey of a football season for Tennessee's Vols.

And here's the scary part for UT fans: Next season will be more of the same.

The starters on both lines for the Kentucky game on Saturday night will be playing their last game for the Vols. While we can debate how well those lines performed this season, the coaching staff obviously felt those players gave them the best chance to win.

Breaking in new starting offensive and defensive lines in the SEC is hazardous to your record.

And while the 2014 schedule does not appear as treacherous as this season's, it may be more than the Vols can handle. Assuming Utah State quarterback Chuckie Keeton is all the way back from a knee injury, the season-opener could be an eye-opener. And who scheduled a game at Oklahoma anyway?

But let's be clear on one thing right here: Butch Jones is not on the clock, nor should he be. He took on this epic rebuilding job when others deferred. Recruiting has improved on his watch. Discipline has been re-established. Jones is sweating the small stuff, something that hasn't been done with this program for the better part of a decade.

In short, UT football didn't sink this low overnight. It's going to take time to recover from the nuclear winter of Vol Ball.

Of particular concern is getting the Vols back up to speed — literally. A startling lack of overall team speed manifested itself over and over this season. It was particularly telling in mismatches with Oregon, Alabama, Missouri and Auburn. It is an area Jones is emphasizing in recruiting.

One of the many disappointing things about this season is that UT did not get the bump that sometimes comes with a new head coach. Entering the Kentucky game, the Vols' record will be the same — at best — as the final two seasons under Derek Dooley.

Look elsewhere around the SEC in recent years. Texas A&M transitioned from a 7-6 team under Mike Sherman to an 11-2 team under Kevin Sumlin. Hugh Freeze went 7-6 in his first season at Ole Miss compared with 2-10 by Houston Nutt in 2011. Vanderbilt's James Franklin tripled the victory total of the previous season in his debut.

And has anybody noticed what Gus Malzahn is doing with Gene Chizik's players at Auburn?

Sure, all programs are different. There's no question that Jones inherited a difficult situation at UT. But did the Vols get better as the season progressed? Coaches insist they did, but the performance on the field in the last month says otherwise.

The defense backslid to the point that you wondered if Sal Sunseri was back in town. An offensive line stocked with so many future pros showed no major improvement from start to finish. With the exception of receiver Marquez North, no new playmakers stepped up on either side of the ball.

For all the whining about the dumpster fire (or was that a burning couch?) left behind with Lane Kiffin's abrupt exit and Derek Dooley's rushed hire in January 2010, let's take a more reasoned accounting of things.

Nine signees from that transition recruiting class played significant roles as seniors this season — Ja'Wuan James, James Stone, Corey Miller, Jacques Smith, Dontavis Sapp, Rajion Neal, Michael Palardy, Zach Fulton and Brent Brewer. Two others — Justin Hunter and Tyler Bray — left a year earlier for the NFL.

For all of Kiffin's and Dooley's many failings, Jones certainly benefited from the talent in that 2010 recruiting class.

The Vols peaked in the Oct. 19 upset of South Carolina, at which point many UT fans assumed the corner had been turned. The ensuing four straight losses by a combined 145-46 provided a harsh slap back to reality.

In time, the roster will be reshaped to fit Jones' philosophy and system. After this season, he has a far better understanding of what it takes to compete in the SEC.

Wait till next season? It's better to wait for the season after that.

David Climer's columns appear on Wednesday, Friday, Sunday and Monday. Contact him at 615-259-8020 or dclimer@tennessean.com.

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