As I left Neyland Stadium after last year’s Georgia game, I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d ever felt so upbeat after a heartbreaking defeat to any foe, let alone a hated divisional rival. Instinctively, I knew that I hadn’t, a fact that didn’t sit well with me, but not because I’m categorically opposed to the concept of a moral victory. I’m not.
Everyone knew Tennessee had hit rock bottom after the humiliating beat down at the hands of Vanderbilt the year before. But the 2013 Georgia game served notice as to just how low that rock bottom was. And that’s what didn’t sit well with me. That Tennessee had been in such horrific shape, not even a year prior, that a near upset of a completely banged up Georgia team at home was cause for widespread celebration.
The closest thing to a moral victory before that, and really the only other one I could recall in my adult life (aside from maybe the 09 game at Florida), had come three years before via the heartbreaker in Death Valley, the game UT thought it had won, the 16-14 loss to LSU. Math not withstanding, most were encouraged the Vols had battled such a highly-ranked foe down to the wire, but it still couldn’t hold a candle to the Georgia game for more than a few reasons.
First, the LSU near miss was on the heels of a season that had ended with a bowl appearance. It also came just three years removed from an SEC Championship Game appearance. Plus, and again, there was some garden variety mathematic ineptitude sprinkled in there — not to mention the fact that Tennessee thought it had actually won the game — so that loss was more of a mule kick to the gut than it was a feel-good sign of things to come.
The vibe after Georgia, on the other hand, was borderline euphoric. After all, it was the first tangible on-the-field evidence of something most had strongly suspected but couldn’t prove for certain. Namely, that UT was in good hands with Butch Jones.
Fast forward to today, and virtually everyone still believes that’s the case. Butch Jones seems poised to bring his installment of the Tennessee Volunteer football program back to the competitive and relevant version Vol Nation is starving for.
And starving is the right word. That’s what happens to a fan base when its team — the one that was a perennial contender for two decades running — suddenly endures six losing seasons in a nine-year span. Seven if you consider Lane Kiffin’s one-and-done. Sure, the Vols went 7-6 that year, but they got run in the Chik-fil-A Bowl and Kiffin would leave the program in shambles just weeks later. Might have been a winning season on the field, but it certainly wasn’t off of it.
If you had told anyone in 2004 what the next 10 years would hold, no one would have believed you. Well, except for the bright spots in 06 and 07 which, themselves, were sandwiched between two losing seasons. It’s been far more grim than any worst-case projections could have ever been. There’s just no way to sugar coat it.
It’s been a decade of futility.
But like anything else, the further you get from the eye of the storm, the greater perspective you gain. And I’ve come to appreciate this catastrophic drop in performance. Yes, it’s been nothing short of agonizing to experience, but there’s also been much good that’s come from it, something I finally realized last season when UT almost beat Georgia.
What’s happened with Tennessee Football is a lot like a recession. And the years that preceded the big orange fallout saw this investor leaving the marketplace madder than hell on plenty of occasions. On some of them Tennessee got thoroughly outclassed. But on a couple others they dropped flat-out heartbreakers.
I was in the house for the 2006 loss to Florida, a 21-20 affair that ended when Tennessee went for it on fourth down late in the game from the Florida 45. Erik Ainge was intercepted on that play, and Florida gained the game-clinching first down by mere inches on its ensuing possession with just over a minute to play. Seven weeks later, I was in the house again as Jamarcus Russell found Early Doucet in the end zone with just nine seconds left to give LSU a gut-wrenching, if not unlikely, 28-24 come-from-behind victory.
Both of those two home losses contained similar heartbreak to the one felt when Tennessee came up just short against Georgia, yet on neither of those occasions did I leave the stadium with an upbeat feeling. Or any feeling at all for that matter, other than one of complete despondency. And the reason is simple. By the time the 2013 Georgia game came around, the recession had tempered my expectations.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve enjoyed following Tennessee football during the beginning of the Butch Jones era more than I ever thought possible given the ceilings for these teams are infinitely lower than those of the teams of yore. And I’m convinced that part of the reason is that my modified expectations have humanized these kids as well as the men who lead them. And I’m better able to detach the fanatic that still resides deep within from the everyday person who appreciates young men who give their all in the face of a daunting undertaking.
Bringing Tennessee football back to the top.
And I’m not alone. Pig Howard was lauded for his noble effort last October against Georgia. As well he should have been. Because Tennessee wouldn’t have been in that game to begin with were it not for that effort. Pig came to represent all this young team stood for. Leaving everything on the field in their pursuit of returning to the fans something that had once seemed to be their eminent domain. Something all of them had foolishly — greedily — taken for granted.
A top-flight program.
Randy Sanders received death threats, for crying out loud. Jonathan Crompton did, too. But Pig, who fumbled away a likely win that would have been one of the biggest in the history of the program, received a standing O. And this fan thinks he deserved that standing O. Every bit as much, in fact, as Sanders and Crompton deserved far, far better.
So, yeah, I’m okay with moral victories. And it seems most of Vol Nation is, too. Because there was undeniable optimism that followed at 24 point loss in Norman. A 24-point loss. Same thing last week down in Athens, yet another moral victory over yet another highly ranked Georgia Bulldog team. All of which begs the question, would a similar effort against Florida, would a similar result to that of Norman, to that of the last two Georgia games, leave fans feeling that same upbeat vibe?
Don’t let the tone of this article fool you. No, it would not. Because three moral victories in one calendar year is plenty, thank you very much.
The main reason for these moral victories is that they provided proof that Butch Jones is changing the culture, the first and most critical step of getting back to where everyone wants this program to be. But as I wrote in my Georgia recap, no further proof is needed. Because now we know. The culture is changed. A fact that simply is. Vol Nation needs no more noble efforts to validate as much.
Which, in turn, begs the question, is Saturday’s game against Florida a must win as some have contended?
Let’s not be silly. There’s no such thing as a must win for a coach in just his second season who inherited as big of a train wreck as Butch Jones did. Especially when that coach has done as many great things in such a short period of time as Jones has. So from that standpoint, Florida is about the furthest thing from a must win as is possible.
Until you consider one thing. This team, this program and its fans, desperately need a bowl appearance. And there aren’t a lot of gimmies left on the schedule. Chattanooga, Vanderbilt and Kentucky by my count. The rest of the games will likely see the Vols as an underdog.
But they are no such thing against Florida. They’re favored. Still, take the oddsmakers out of the equation and one simple fact still remains. The easiest and most likely path to six wins — the easiest and most likely path to a bowl game — starts with a win against the Gators. So if the Vols want to go bowling, and if they want to get there via the most logical and viable path, then yes, they have to get the W against Florida.
My expectations are right where they’ve been since before the season started. I expect the Vols to win five, maybe six games this year. But I know enough about Florida and, more importantly, enough about Team 118, to say this without hesitation.
I’m through with moral victories. Tennessee’s going to beat Florida.
But that doesn’t change the fact that I’m thankful for the good that’s come out of the recession Tennessee seems to be leaving behind. Because should the Vols stumble on Saturday, I’ve got the perspective needed to know one thing for certain.
Tennessee is headed back to where it belongs. And when they get there, no matter when that is, here’s to all of us taking a page from the hard times and keeping it with us at all times. Because things got out of control there for a little while, and I, for one, hope it never gets like that again.
So check your seats at checkerneyland.com, wear your appropriate color and cheer on Team 118 with all you’ve got. But don’t forget that for all their potential, for all their brawn, for all their glory, they’re still just boys.
Our boys. The Tennessee Volunteers.