The 70 minute weather delay inside Neyland Stadium on Saturday night was an event on its own. When Bobby Denton repeatedly advised us to seek shelter, most of the 102,000 plus left their seats, especially once the rain moved from threat to reality. It was a small case study in how some people act during hurricane season: warnings to flee are totally ignored until the storm finally arrives, and then you quickly discover that the threat was, in fact, very real.
My entire existence as a Tennessee fan has included the pleasure and the privilege of sitting in the dry, 48 rows back in the lower level, under the upper deck. So when the rains came, we could stay right where we were and watch. What we saw was everyone head for the exits, and rightfully so, during the storm...except a percentage of the student section. The kids that stayed made memories for themselves in the storm, and like Lieutenant Dan strapped to his unsinkable boat, every thunderclap was met with an even louder roar.
The environment was unique and memorable, and my friend and I talked throughout the delay about how we simply had to win this game - for those who stayed and saw all that take place inside the stadium, the story was too good not to come true. When the rain stopped and all the fans returned, volume still intact, the team again responded. When the Vols took a 13-3 lead and then sacked Darron Thomas to open the following drive, we hit one of those moments in Neyland Stadium where the words coming out of your own mouth get swallowed up by the euphiora of us all. We peaked.
And then - slowly, but surely - we walked down the other side of the mountain. Oregon's might moved from threat to reality. And in one night, we experienced everything: hope, elation, even confidence, the one emotion I thought would be most difficult to come by this season. We also experienced frustration, anger, and eventually helplessness, all potentially potent enough to take away everything we learned on our way up the mountain.
If Tennessee-Martin taught us nothing about this football team, perhaps it's also true that we can't take too much from Oregon either, because they're so far on the other end of the spectrum. For both the things we did right and the things we did wrong, you hope this is true. Either way, the Ducks have a tremendously talented offense, and are the sort of team where one mistake can kill you. Miss a tackle on LaMichael James in the backfield? Touchdown. Get one bad decision (not bad throw, bad decision) from your quarterback? Pick six.
The word Dooley used to describe the Vols' punt coverage on the next touchdown was "disgraceful", a label our special teams play has earned over the last four seasons. Some may also want to use it to describe everything that happened once Simms decided to throw that pass.
Did we quit? Would it have mattered if we didn't?
I do know that we weren't hanging around for two and a half quarters because we were lucky. Tauren Poole and the Tennessee running game gave us proof that this team can run the football well, and gave us hope that we can do so again in the future.
But if there are conclusions we want to jump to after a blowout win against an average FCS team and a blowout loss to a legitimate National Championship contender, one of them is this: we are who we are as an offense.
The Vols weren't hiding anything in the UT-Martin game. Tennessee ran a basic I-formation set most of the night, only using a three-wide package when down and distance required it. All indications point to the Vols living and dying with the run game - and there is certainly hope that we can do some living.
The flip side of that coin is Matt Simms, who also is what he is. He's made one bad decision in two games, though it was certainly a costly one. He's thrown for less than 200 yards in both games. Our complement to the run game is a short, safe passing game with a quarterback who either can't go through his progression, or isn't asked to...with a few chances taken downfield. Justin Hunter's sensational catch allowed one of those chances to pay off. The Vols are going to need more of them to score points against good teams this year.
There's no point in getting mad at Simms - this is just who he is. Right now, he's the best option we've got, and the question becomes whether or not the Vols can be successful and win with a power running game and a few chances in the passing game. As long as the coaching staff believes it's a possibility, Matt Simms is our quarterback. There may come a point where they believe Tyler Bray has the potential to give us something more...but we're not close to that point right now. And that's okay.
The biggest question of all right now surrounds Dooley - how will he manage this team? One of the best coaching jobs Lane Kiffin did last year was between the UCLA and Florida game: staying competitive with angry Gators in The Swamp was one thing. Doing so seven days after such a demoralizing loss was even more impressive.
The players on this team are, unfortunately, used to losing. This will be the third coach in the last three years who's asked them to pick up the pieces, move on to the next one, and keep buying in, keep moving forward. Will Dooley push the right buttons with what is surely a fragile team?
Specifically against Oregon and generally the rest of the year, Tennessee is not good enough to overcome big mistakes. One of the most noticeable differences between us and them right now is 2nd and 15: Oregon had penalties and plays that went backward to create that down and distance multiple times on Saturday night...and more often than not, they got out of it. 2nd and 15 was a minor annoyance, nothing more. For the Vols, 2nd and 15 is a punt.
It is the ability to overcome adversity that Dooley has stressed continually in the last 24 hours. On the field, Tennessee simply cannot afford to be good to good teams. Off the field, the Vols have to find a way to pick up the pieces and keep playing in a very young season...to keep playing, and to keep growing.
How many games can Tennessee win running this offense? The Gators are coming, and despite whatever problems they may or may not have, their talent is on par with Oregon, as is their speed. One mistake can kill you, and right now the offense isn't good enough to make up the difference.
It's been raining in Knoxville off and on for the last two years. Saturday night, at times, it fell harder than ever. And it gets no easier from here. We're gonna need a bigger boat...and it's still yet to be determined if this team is capable of building it.
But rain or shine, I'm eager to see them try again.