In our Rocky Top Tennessee preseason annual, Josh McNeil said "Football is not fun if you lose. Period." It's a sentiment we can all relate to, especially in the last two years. And especially for McNeil, who added injury to insult in fall camp, probably lost millions of NFL dollars along the way and worst of all, appeared to have lost the ability to play football at all.
That's the same Josh McNeil we saw on the field in the waning moments today, with his hands on the football once more and, presumably, a smile on his face. For more than one reason. Because as little fun as we had all of last season, today was a welcome reminder that when you win - and you win like this - football is fun. Really, really fun.
The fact that we had the luxury of getting McNeil on the field at all is a good place to start. Because I always enjoy the games where you can't decide what you're most excited about:
The first big win for Lane Kiffin
Last year, the Vols suffered the most frustrating competitive loss in recent memory against Auburn, and were more or less noncompetitive in the rest of the big SEC games, losing by 20+ to Florida, Alabama and South Carolina. Plus, the Vols gave up 458 yards to Georgia and ran for one total yard themselves in a 26-14 loss.
This year, it's been competitive, but up until today that was all. We were close against Florida. Close against UCLA. We made it close at the end against Auburn. There was reason for hope.
But we needed more than hope. This program hadn't won a big game in two years, and Lane Kiffin needed a reason to be believed besides his work behind a microphone and in the living room on the recruiting trail.
The Clawfense was our hope once. But when it never became tangible, the players never had a reason to fully buy in, and that hope eventually collapsed and took everyone down with it. Phillip Fulmer's inability to keep the snowball from rolling downhill by winning a big game was the final nail in his coffin last season.
Kiffin was next in line to give us hope. But unlike last season, today he and the Vols got a return on that investment. A big one.
Any win would've been huge today. But the how of it all, in a 45-19 game that could've/should've been 45-3 if you remove special teams from the equation, gives Kiffin his big first win, and gives him something to hang his hat on. Now we've seen it, now we know for sure that this can work - players, fans, everyone. That's not to say that Kiffin is going to have success here forever, but when you win like that in your first year against one of your biggest rivals, you earn a whole lot of trust. Tennessee needed to win one of these big SEC games in the worst way. And turns out, we won in the very best way.
Georgia got 458 yards of offense last year. This year they got 241. Tennessee had 1 rushing yard last year. This year we got 162. And if you liked the running game...
Willie Martinez overtakes Jonathan Crompton for the "Most Likely to be Hated by His Own Fanbase" Award
At halftime, I told my friend next to me in Z11 that I didn't want to see Crompton's numbers. There was a Raiders of the Lost Ark feel about it - "Shut your eyes! Don't look at it!" - because what #8 did in the first half was so totally unnatural, I feared that seeing 12 of 15 for 205 yards and 3 TDs and then having my brain try to comprehend it might, in fact, make my face melt off.
Then in the second half, when the dreaded tipped ball pick six reared its ugly head and Georgia was right in the middle of one of those games it seems like that team always wins - statistically overmatched, but in it thanks to special teams and defensive touchdowns - Crompton went right back to work.
Let's take nothing away from him. That offensive performance was stunning, and he deserves every ounce of credit for his role in it. So do the receivers for catching almost everything - eight different Vols caught passes, and Gerald Jones gave us the type of go-to performance we've been waiting for with 105 yards and 2 TDs.
So does Montario Hardesty, for giving every defense a reason to be vulnerable to play action, and for continuing to be the best running back in the SEC.
Having said all of that...Georgia's defense? Yikes.
It's the biggest difference between on-paper and on-field I can remember in a long time. You looked at the names in August - Prince Miller, Rennie Curran, Geno Atkins, Jeff Owens, Reshad Jones - and figured they'd carry the slack for Joe Cox and the offense. You look at the numbers here in the second weekend of October, and see a defense that's given up 37+ points three times, 400+ yards three times, and made Jon Crompton and Stephen Garcia look like Peyton Manning and (insert good South Carolina quarterback here - Steve Tanneyhill does not count).
T Kyle King was on our podcast last week and said that Georgia's special teams should've taken some of the heat off Martinez after the LSU game. After the Tennessee game, whoever's responsible for special teams needs a raise...unless it's Martinez.
This leads to a larger point:
Georgia reminds me of Tennessee in the last few years of the Fulmer Era
They run a consistent offense that isn't "sexy" and, when it features Joe Cox instead of Matthew Stafford, isn't that consistent. They got a great young coach who brought them more success than they had seen in decades, but who has struggled to maintain that level of success on a consistent basis, and who is fiercely loyal to his assistants, for better or worse. Meanwhile, just as Fulmer watched the SEC go from a two-team race to everyone for themselves, Richt found his early success when Ron Zook was at Florida and the door was revolving in Tuscaloosa. Now the Tide and Gators are a step ahead of everyone else, LSU is still right behind them, and Georgia just got embarrassed by the new kid on the block. And the Dawgs will see the other new kid come November, and Gene Chizik certainly appeared to have Auburn moving in the right direction until Saturday.
And in this little game, Willie Martinez will be playing the role of Randy Sanders.
Between my total shock at Crompton's performance and the small but shared recognition I feel with Georgia fans, I didn't even fully enjoy their suffering in Neyland Stadim today. I still hope they enjoyed the long sad drive back down I-7-5, but you know.
Because we've been there. We've been Georgia. As a friend of mine said in the postgame, we've forded that river and lost two oxen.
I like it much better this way.
Georgia's offense never crossed the Tennessee 30 yard line
...no commentary necessary.
In a world where Florida has beaten you five years in a row and won two National Championships in the process, Alabama is back to being Alabama and LSU is also ahead of you, it was absolutely critical for Lane Kiffin to keep Tennessee from slipping any further in the SEC hierarchy.
Beating Georgia was, is, and always will be key for recruiting. By the way, what are the odds Coach O picked up the phone and called Marlon's Granny after the game today?
But it also pays off in the short term: being just the fifth best team in the SEC is still good enough to get you to January 1, and after that performance the conversations about bowl games move from if to where.
And even if I'm too busy feeling Georgia's pain to fully appreciate it the way I'd like to today, it should be noted and remembered that three of the last four years, the Vols have beaten the Dawgs 51-33, 35-14, and 45-19.
So now the bye week comes at the perfect time, as the Vols will carry some spring in their step to Tuscaloosa to face a tremendous challenge. And they'll face it not as a 2-4 team still looking for answers and their first big win, but a 3-3 team that isn't just hoping anymore...now we've seen it. Now we know.