Some games just have a different feel. For some reason, this weekend’s matchup with Oklahoma is one of them. I don’t really know how to explain it, it just feels different. The last time I felt this way about a game was in 2001 when Tennessee was an 18-point underdog to Florida heading into a regular season ending showdown in the Swamp – I’m not saying that I claim some sort of sixth sense or that Tennessee is going to shock the world with a win on Saturday, I’m just saying that the similarities are there.
Tennessee is heading into a hostile environment against a top-5 team as double-digit underdogs and have been given essentially no shot at victory – a situation that has become all too familiar in recent years for a program that, traditionally, has been among the elite of college football. Yet, for some reason, this game feels different than last year’s trips to Tuscaloosa or Eugene, as I think even the biggest die hards knew what was in store for the Vols in those two contests. Those games felt like Tennessee had no chance.
But this trip to Norman has a different aura about it, and while I can’t be sure exactly, it almost feels like one of hope. And no, I’m not speaking of the false hopes (wishes) that we hear in our daily lives like, “I hope I win the lottery,” instead the truer hope – hope that is rooted in expectation. Hope that comes with a feeling of trust.
I had a conversation with someone this week who will be going to the game on Saturday. This person is a lifelong Vol fan who currently lives in Oklahoma and scored a pair of tickets – expensive tickets – to watch the Vols take on the Sooners. I asked him why he wanted to go, expecting something along the lines of, “This will be the only time I can see them this year.” What I got instead was much more powerful, “I think Oklahoma should win, but I have to be there…Just in case something really special happens.”
Now, don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of reasons why Oklahoma is a heavy favorite in this game. They are talented, deep, experienced and exceptionally well coached. The exact type of team that should beat a younger, less talented and less experienced Tennessee team with relative ease.
But this is college football…anything can happen. And for the first time in a long time, it seems like Tennessee fans and players are hoping (the expectation-based hope) to win instead of wishing to win. In talking with players after practice this week, they genuinely think they have a chance to win this weekend.
They believe – much like that 2001 team that went into Gainesville and ended Florida’s run at a national championship.
I guess that’s the reason why this game feels different. For the first time in a long time, Tennessee players are talking about winning a big game as if it is an expectation, and not just a possibility – and there’s a big difference between the two.
It’s almost as if, in less than two years, Tennessee fans and players have completely changed their mindset regarding big games. The line has turned from, “Maybe they can keep it close.” to “I think they can win this thing.”
And there’s the word. Win. We’ve heard it a thousand times from Butch Jones over the last year and a half when he says winning is a mentality…winning is a mentality…winning is a mentality.
Do you get it yet?
That mentality is beginning to take hold.
Win or lose this weekend, the transformation has already begun. A program is on the doorstep of rediscovering their identity and reestablishing themselves as a national contender in college football. A win Saturday would go a long way in expediting that process, but it certainly isn’t mandatory – it’s a long season with plenty of opportunities to make a statement.
But it seems that these players – much like the fans – know where they are. Where the program is from a historical standpoint. Right there on that doorstep. And just as losing is contagious, so, too, is the desire to turn it around. The desire to win.
Because the coach’s message is beginning to resonate with his team. It’s beginning to permeate through this program and its fans and it’s beginning to manifest itself through the outward belief that the ‘impossible’ is, in fact, possible. People who left this program for dead just two years ago are now beginning to see signs of life. They are beginning to see something that they can’t quite put into words.
I guess you’d just have to call it…