It’s a grind for me to get to those noon games, just as I’m sure it is for countless other parents whose children have Saturday morning sporting obligations. So, per usual, there I was at 11:45, pulling into C-8 on two wheels, the triplets fresh off their soccer game, bickering over God knows what in the back seat of my Yukon.
Quick gripe, by the way: C-8 must have been striped in 1975 or something. Because those spaces are so small it’s a joke. Sure, I managed to back my vehicle between two other SUVs, but it took a tub of Vaseline and a shoehorn to get it done. As well as extreme body contortion just to get out. But get out we somehow did, before dashing through the crowd to the stadium. (Little did I know at the time that that would be the most impressive running attack I’d see all day.)
As we negotiated the concourse, I couldn’t wait to see if it had worked. I was certain it had — to what extent was my only question. As soon as we broke the threshold, I had my answer. To the ultimate extent. CheckerNeyland was an overwhelming success. One of the coolest sporting spectacles this fan has ever seen.
The next thing I was eager to see was which uni Tennessee was sporting. I’d heard from some all orange. Others said, nope, that’s what the players wanted, but they’d been overruled. They would wear orange and white. Still others said the confusion was a sign that gray unis were going to make a surprise appearance. I was more than fine with the actuality. Orange and white seemed only appropriate on a day the stadium rocked the same.
A few minutes into the game yet another mystery revealed itself. Lil Jon did indeed appear. Via video. Reppin the power T. The Blue Hairs were delighted.
Oh yeah. And there was a football game. The one everyone had poured so much energy into all week. And by the time I finally got around to really paying attention to it, I noticed that Tennessee was playing tight. Real tight. The number of first-half mistakes alone was telling. So was an untimely drop here, a sailed throw there. And don’t even get me started on the decision-making. Nothing felt right on Saturday. Everything seemed off from the get.
But there the Vols were, with more than their fair share of opportunities to win the damn thing. The Jalen Reeves-Maybin pick on the first play of the second half? Are you kidding me? That’s the kind of stuff that happens in program-changing wins. The pick Worley threw the very next play, however, is the reason we all suffer from BVFS. (Battered Vol Fan Syndrome. Shoutout to my RockyTopBlitz FB boys…)
TK Jr.’s electric pick a few possessions later was a rare second chance. A stay of execution, even. But the Vols went backwards and settled for a 38-yard field goal to take a 6-0 lead. Three Driskel turnovers, two of them gift-wrapped for UT inside the 20, yet only six points to show for it. Doesn’t take much of a football IQ to figure out that’s a recipe for disaster.
There’s no need for me to go into detail about what happened. We all know. And by now, it’s been accurately summed up by a number of smart folks. One side of the ball played brilliantly. The other side of the ball played the worst they’ve played all year. The poorest of play at the most inopportune of times. Familiar plot, right?
Seeing that game unfold was like watching some bad movie I’d seen hundreds of times. And even though I knew exactly what was going to happen, I just sat there like the sheep that I am and rooted for a different ending than the certain heartbreak that had already been written in blood, sweat and tears on the very last page of the script.
We all know that script by heart, don’t we? The Vols shoot themselves in the foot time and time again before their opponent puts in the backup quarterback who leads his team to a victory it had no business getting. And as I looked on, one phrase kept popping into my head over and over again:
A watched pot never boils.
Weird, I know, but my mom used to utter it all the time when I was a kid, usually in an effort to ease the frustration I felt whenever something I KNEW was going to happen hadn’t happened soon enough for my liking. I even called her out on it once. Told her it was BS and I knew for a fact because I’d sat there and watched it happen. On the front right burner of her old-school, white GE stove. Didn’t matter, she said. The saying was still true, and one day I’d understand.
And she was right. Because that saying has way less to do with an actual event than the energy and expectations that precede it. And that’s kind of where I landed on Saturday. And I landed on it from a players standpoint, a coaching standpoint, and a fan standpoint as well. A watched pot never boils.
I’ve attended every single home game of the Butch Jones era, and, by and large, I’ve been pleased with the overall effort in most of them. I’ve often used the word organic to describe the on-the-field product. And it’s a great compliment. Because things that are organic happen in and of themselves. They’re natural. They sprout, blossom, grow, drop seeds and repeat, ever larger in scope with each successive iteration. The coach that followed Derek Dooley had to produce something organic, so charred by ineptitude was the barren landscape left behind.
Some say “Get off of Dooley, already,” and I think that’s fair. But so, too, is this. His refusal to take an offensive lineman in the 2012 recruiting class (coupled by the mass exodus of o-linemen in the 13 class after his firing) is one of the many coaching cardinal sins that litter the worst three-year period in the history of Tennessee football. And this staff, whether my fellow fans want to hear it or not, is greatly handicapped by those sins. Still. Particularly the o-line part.
Hence building a foundation. Brick by brick. Different words, different slogans, but ones akin to my use of the word organic.
There are only two home games I can recall that didn’t have that “organic” feel. Vanderbilt last year, and Florida. Both were winnable games against hated divisional rivals. Both were critical to the Vols’ bowl-game hopes. Both featured Volunteer play that wasn’t up to the level their fans were accustomed to seeing. And, in both cases, particularly Florida, it felt like the anticipation of the game almost swallowed the game, itself. Which, I suspect, is why at the end of Saturday’s contest, I had the distinct feeling that I was all dressed up with nowhere to go.
There are a few things to take away from Saturday. The first is this: Tennessee is still on its way. Not even a loss to a team they should have beaten can change that. But a loss to a team it should have beaten does mean that UT’s not quite as far along as their better performances would have you believe.
Which puts fans in a tricky little spot. On the one hand, and again, UT should have absolutely beaten Florida on Saturday. There’s no sugar coating it. The Vols were the better team. They were the beneficiaries of the early turnovers. They were the ones playing at home in their jam-packed stadium that was checkered with the school’s colors. They were the ones all krunked up. And they were the ones with the two-score, fourth-quarter lead.
Add 2013 Vanderbilt to all that and you get this: Butch Jones is 0-2 in critical, winnable home games to divisional foes. And that’s not good. And it’s fair to be critical of it.
Yet on the other hand, Butch Jones and his staff are still doing a very good job overall. Not only are they coaching in the significant shadow of Dooley’s incompetence (think eclipse), but they’re also competing with the expectations they’ve created by so often getting their team to play above its actual level. Which, in turn, has whetted the appetite of a fanbase that’s starved beyond belief.
And those fans are hurt. Disappointed. Angry. And I don’t blame them. I’m one of them. Still, a tricky spot given all the undeniable progress, which is why I hope Vol fans are able to compartmentalize their hurt, disappointment and anger and not let it bleed into their overall assessment of the program.
I suspect I’m not the only one who felt as if he were all dressed up with nowhere to go after the game on Satruday. But, even as the disappointment continues to sink in, I still trust the process. Because there really is somewhere to go, and the Vols really are headed there. When Tennessee will finally get there, and where, exactly, that will be? I wish it were easier to forecast. But it’s not.
Because my mom was right. A watched pot never boils.