After three games, here's what we know for sure:
- Against what is probably the worst team in FBS, Tennessee played an almost-perfect game and set a school record by outgaining Western Kentucky 657 yards to 83 in a 63-7 win. Tennessee is still talented enough to steamroll the worst of college football.
- Against what is probably the best team in FBS - and, in case you forgot, against a Florida team supposedly bent on total annihilation playing at home in The Swamp - the 30 point underdog Vols were more than competitive throughout, falling 23-13 to the #1 Gators. Tennessee is still game enough - even with a passing game that is the definition of conservative - to play with the best of college football.
- Against a team hoping for a similar rebound season with a similarly good defense and a similarly respected coordinator, the Vols played to the wire and lost, primarily because the quarterback of said conservative passing game had a hand in four turnovers.
I'm still not happy about the UCLA loss. And I wouldn't use the word "happy" to describe my thoughts about losing to anyone, even when it's #1 Florida as a 30 point favorite.
But Lane Kiffin, from day one, has worked hard to keep Tennessee relevant, to put the Vols in the national consciousness. That performance today, even in the loss, keeps the Vols there. We've seen what we can do against the worst and the best. Now at 1-2 and out of The Swamp, it's time to take a step back and take a look at this team again...because we're about to get a much better idea of what we really have here.
You have to feel better about this team than you did a week ago, that's for sure. The national media is going to say some nice things about Lane Kiffin. Jonathan Crompton may not have changed any opinions about him today, but he certainly didn't make things worse for himself. Crompton's worst day is enough to label him the worst quarterback to ever wear the orange. And Crompton's best day against SEC competition may never be anything to write home about.
But if the Vols still managed a 96 yard effort from Montario Hardesty against a National Championship defense with no downfield passing game to take the pressure off, you feel better about the Vols' ability to get more against other teams and continue to help Crompton out down the road. And a Tennessee defense that bent but didn't break for most of the day - Florida gets 322 yards on 53 plays, a dozen more than the Vols ran in five extra mintes of possession - should also continue to improve when, again, they're not playing Florida.
This isn't the year - for both the Vols and Gators - to sit around and wonder if Florida is going to lose twice. Small steps. Tennessee's first goal shouldn't be to backdoor into the SEC Championship Game, of course...getting six wins and bowl eligibility would be an improvement.
That starts next week against an Ohio team that was game against UConn, beat North Texas in overtime, and is currently leading Cal-Poly as I write this. This is a team Tennessee should beat, obviously. And it'll give us a chance to see more of what Crompton and the entire team can do. It cannot be taken for granted, but should get the Vols to 2-2.
Then comes the stretch that will define the season and truly tell us the most about this team. Tennessee can't be defined by what it does against Western Kentucky or Florida. That will come in October: vs Auburn, vs Georgia, off week, at Alabama, vs South Carolina.
If the Vols split that four game run, they'll be in excellent position to get to a bowl game. Doing so would also mean Lane Kiffin gets his first big win, something Phillip Fulmer never accomplished last season, which led to the snowball's continual growth on its path of destruction.
While Tennessee hasn't had superior talent in comparison with the rest of the SEC since the earliest parts of this decade, I've always felt like they had enough talent to play with anybody, even in down seasons like 2005. I still wanted to believe that last season, blaming the darkest moments on coaching, system problems and then an emotional breaking point in the final two losses.
Had the Vols been obliterated today, I would've fully and finally let that idea go. And look, if Crompton can't improve, Tennessee is going to be very, very limited all season. But for the Vols to play with the Gators, with (or in spite of, depending on which you like) Crompton and all the environment and all the limitations...it suggests to me that this team, right now, can play with anyone. You know the defense and the running game are going to be there.
And yes...if Kiffin keeps recruiting, over time you'd hope that the talent gap and the passing game deficiencies go away. There will be times the rest of this year that it gets very frustrating, and Kiffin's aware of it - don't think he wasn't protecting Crompton's psyche or however you want to say that on the final drive today, wasting away the clock while never throwing downfield until the final down. And like the UCLA game, there may be lots of down-to-the-wire experiences, and we may not win them all.
I think this team's realistic window is still 5-8 wins, but I feel better about the right end of that spectrum than I did last week. Six wins would still be an improvement, and bowl eligibility should still be the first goal - which means next week is an important game for the entire team, and is a huge huge game for Jonathan Crompton specifically.
Against Ohio, the Vols will have more opportunities offensively than they had against Florida. And maybe that means Kiffin calls Hardesty and Brown to get the rock 60 times between them, and we win that way. But more likely is the idea that Crompton gets more chances to do something with his arm against the Bobcats - and more chances than he'll probably see in the entire month of October. It's up to #8 to make those somethings positives instead of negatives.
From there, the true story of this season will be written in October. Only then will we see how far this team can truly go. Kiffin has kept the story relevant. Now it's up to a team that appears capable of playing with anyone to make it good.