The next time a normal, quiet offseason rolls through here, I'm not even sure we'll recognize it.
A coaching change on the heels of a coaching change, with personalities that make us want to keep talking about both guys. A 2:00 AM bar brawl that put our culture at its low point and still leaves us with questions today. The number one sophomore-to-be in the nation breaking up with the team over the course of six months, then getting upset when we wouldn't make everything easy for him.
The shadows of the previous administration are still here, as we wait for an NCAA investigation to run its course. The future feels different too, as a program whose motto was "anyone, anytime, anywhere" paid off a basketball school to cancel a game next year. Throw in a realignment crisis that involved us all...and well, we've been busy this summer. Again.
But now, the past and the shadows return to their rightful place. We have a thousand questions. We've never met Matt Simms, Tauren Poole, Da'Rick Rogers, Justin Hunter, any offensive linemen or our defensive coordinator. Everything we know about our head coach has been formed in press conferences, recruiting, and decision making in handling the events of the summer. Now, the relationship truly begins.
Dark and cloudy it may be in Knoxville...but here comes the sun.
The simple beauty of gameday means that we can put down the burdens we've been carrying, and just play football. Whatever happens on Saturday will be exponentially more important than anything that's happened since Kiffin stopped and Dooley started. College football is back, and for this reason, even if for no other, things are about to get better. Take a minute and breathe in the fact that for the next 27 weekends, Tennessee Football or Basketball will be in action. (And since my preseason optimism reaches far and wide, it'll be 30 weekends if we make the Final Four.)
Three thoughts as we enter gameweek:
Focus on Dooley, not Kiffin
This time last year, there was a part of me that was geared up to watch every Bowling Green game just so I could enjoy watching Dave Clawson struggle while wearing someone else's colors. But as our season unfolded, the Vols gave us enough reason to spend all of our emotion on them, and not have to compensate or live vicariously through whoever BGSU was playing that week.
I don't know if Tennessee will do enough winning this year, especially early, to give us the same return on our emotional investment we got from the '09 Vols from Georgia on. But even if they don't, Lane Kiffin is gone...and at this point, I think 100% of us in orange feel better about our program under Derek Dooley. That's not to say Kiffin did a terrible job while he was here, at all (though this statement is open for revision based on the NCAA's input). But Dooley feels like home...and right now, we need that.
The NCAA may not allow us to fully forget Lane right now, but Dooley deserves our full attention. Even if Kiffin tries to take some credit for recruiting these kids if we pull off a big upset. Even if USC runs the table. Even if we don't.
The past is past. Dooley is the present, and the future can be what we want it to be.
You will want this team to succeed more than most
Because of what these players have been through, and because of the challenge in front of them now.
Think about the seniors. Think about Gerald Jones, Denarius Moore, and Luke Stocker. These are guys who made plays in significant games as freshmen in 2007. These are guys know what it's like to be in Atlanta, minutes away from beating the eventual National Champion and winning an SEC Championship. They were there. They remember. They know.
They also know about the Clawfense, about Kiffin, and about where we are now. And they know all of these things with much greater clarity than we have. You think the last couple years have been hard on us? Think about these kids, who have stayed.
Think about Nick Reveiz. Chris Walker. Even Daniel Lincoln. Sometimes giving your all for Tennessee today means suffering. These players have suffered...and they're still here. And they're still ready.
We got so used to success around here, we have no idea what it's like to be the underdog. But we're about to discover it. This team won't be favored over any BCS foe until probably November. But I think this team is going to play its heart out. And we're going to want them to win not just for our own enjoyment...but for theirs.
Live in the moment
We don't want to stay here forever: not receiving a single vote in either preseason poll, picked to finish higher than only Vanderbilt in the East, and being told again and again to be patient. If we were any good at patience, Dave Clawson might still be here.
But while we're here? At least it'll be new. The goal is six wins and any bowl game, a formula that would likely include spending the holidays in Nashville or Memphis. This is the ground floor - Kiffin may have distracted us from believing it last year, but I think we're all embracing it now. And this team and these players have a chance to be the group that gets it turned in the right direction. I believe Derek Dooley is the man to lead us there.
Every season tells a story. This one will be new, and we're not expecting as happy an ending as we're used to. But that doesn't mean it won't be a good story. And it doesn't mean we won't enjoy it along the way.
And who knows? Five years ago a man named Bruce Pearl walked into his first season with few expectations, and walked out having taught us that you just never know. There is still talent here. And there is still hope here. Who knows what sort of surprises this team could have in store for us...and one thing I do know: every win will be a big one. And that's not always been true around here.
Even here, with low expectations and understanding the challenge...I'm just as excited about Tennessee Football as I've ever been. I do not, for a second, believe the life has been beaten out of this program. In seven days, the sun will still come out, the T will still open, and it will once again fail to disappoint. The Vols are still worth every second of it.
This season will be unique...and for this team and these players, who have given so much?
What an incredible opportunity we have.