A final look back at the 2008 season, quick-like, because pain should be fast.
Up today: Forget now, remember when.
So if Vol fans drew any optimism from the Mississippi State win, it didn't show the next week against Alabama. Thousands of the best seats in Neyland Stadium had crimson red butts in them to begin the game, an obvious sign that apathy had already taken root and that many season ticket holders had engaged in the ultimate treason of not only selling their tickets but selling them to the enemy.
FULL SCREEN VERSION
The game actually started out fairly well. Alabama had been running opponents out of the game in the first quarter on its way to an undefeated regular season, and on its first drive, the Tennessee defense held the Tide to a field goal. On Tennessee's ensuing possession, Britton Colquitt and the special teams punt coverage unit put together this beauty, which was voted the 5th-best play of 2008:
From there, you'd think that Tennessee would put it in for the lead, but the Vols started the drive with a five-yard penalty. On the next play, Montario Hardesty got only three of those five yards back. On second down, Nick Stephens threw an incomplete pass, and on third down, he was sacked for a seven yard loss. Daniel Lincoln hit a field goal and tied the game at 3-3. It's that rascal Opportunity playing tricks again.
The defense wasn't quite ready to give up yet, though, especially with Eric Berry on the prowl. Berry took his frustration out on Alabama's Marquis Maze a mere two plays after Lincoln's field goal:
That play was voted 3rd-best of the season, by the way. Tennessee did force 'Bama to punt that drive, but in the end, Alabama was just too good, and Tennessee was just too bad, and the Tide went on to win 29-9. With most of the orange seats empty, the 'Bama fans in the premium seats treated those Tennessee faithful loyal enough to stay till the end to a rousing rendition of Rammer Jamnmer Yellow Hammer in their own stadium.
Throughout the entire game, the powers that be continued to promote the DVD of the 1998 perfect national championship season on the JumboTron, which served as a stark contrast to what the fans were witnessing in the still-ongoing 2008 season ten years later:
I haven't been able to put my finger on the multitude of conflicted feelings I've experienced so many times this season as I watch the Vols flounder and flummox their way to previously undiscovered brands of futility, all the while being constantly bombarded with reminders of how great things were 10 years ago and why I should buy the Perfection DVD that memorializes that magical 1998 season that continues to shrink into a speck in the rearview mirror. What exactly is this emotion? Heart-sinking irony? Bitter sweet nostalgia that naturally attends the onset of a midlife crisis? What is it?
Whatever it is, we got it in bushels Saturday night at Neyland Stadium. I'm not sure how we came into the Third Saturday in October with a 3-4 record. How we ended up with the 106th-worst offense in college football. But nevermind that because the members of the 1998 National Championship team were convened at midfield either to be honored or to distract you from the catastrophe unfolding before your eyes, depending on your perspective. Remember 1998, when we were good? When we were perfect? Yeah, that was cool.
I don't know why we can't find a placekicker who can't get the ball past the ten yard line, much less into the end zone. But hey, look! It's a video highlight of Jeff Hall hitting the game-winning field goal agianst Syracuse in 1998! Wasn't that great?
I don't know exactly at what point Tennessee became a team that felt so poorly about its chances to convert on 4th down and half a yard against a rival that it would choose to punt, but forget about all of that because look at the JumboTron! Florida's missing a field goal in overtime in 1998 to give the Vols a win! Do you remember that? I remember that. That was cool.
I'm not entirely sure what causes a formerly prolific offense to begin a drive at first and goal from its opponent's five yard line and to end it with a field goal attempt from the 31, but nevermind that because although we're not Beating Bama on the scoreboard right now, we are beating them on the JumboTron. Woo!
Nevermind that Tennessee got its first first down on Saturday in the second quarter. And nevermind that after scoring another first down on the same drive and actually building some momentum, we still feel so badly about our offense that we wouldn't go for it on 4th and 2 in what most teams consider fourth down territory. Nevermind all of that because Clint Stoerner is stumbling and fumbling in the rain on video. Remember when that happened and when Travis Henry ran and ran and ran and ran on his way to the game-sealing touchdown? Yes! That was incredible. I liked that.
It's extraordinarily frustrating to have your punt coverage unit block a punt and give your offense the ball in field goal range only to watch the defense drive them backwards and your field goal kicker miss a 51-yard attempt. It's exceptionally difficult to ignore the irony when Alabama, on 4th and one three yards from the end zone, forgoes the field goal attempt and walks into our checkerboards. It's excrutiatingly painful to watch your team put together its best drive of the evening, to get to the red zone, and to subsequently shoot both of its feet clean off with back to back penalties and to cap off the tragedy by missing yet another field goal attempt.
But never you mind about any of that, son. That's all in the fleeting here and now. What's important is the permanent, and the permanent is Ten Years Ago in Tempe, when a Tennessee Volunteer football team destined for greatness scaled the last measure, swung its leg over the ledge, and stood at the apex, all smiles and hoisting the trophy for the world to see.
Remember that. Ignore this. Is that the message? Plug your ears and sing pleasant distractions to yourself so that you can't hear 15,000 rival fans in your stadium jeer that they "just beat the hellouttayou?" Fix your eyes on Holly Rowe on the sideliness because she's interviewing Tee Martin and because highlights of yore soothe all manner of ills?
Is that the message? Remember ten years ago, when we were good?
Surely not. But it certainly seemed so Saturday.
It may have been that scene, that contrast, with a successful past playing on the JumboTron as our rival fans in our best seats in the here and now were mocking us with that despicable cheer, that sealed the fate of Phillip Fulmer.
Or maybe that privilege was reserved for Fulmer's old nemesis the following week against South Carolina.