One of the callers during the Vol Network's postgame coverage on Saturday proved that there are still some out there who never lowered their expectations. He called the Vols' performance "pathetic", gets credit for being the first person to use the phrase "Third and Wilcox" on the air, and laid all of UT's struggles at the feet of Mike Hamilton.
It is an entirely separate conversation to talk about the dynamics of those in the fanbase who screamed for the head of Phillip Fulmer and now scream for the head of the man who gave it to them. But Saturday was a game that would've driven fans crazy under Fulmer: opportunities squandered, the aforementioned third down issues, and nine penalties all leading to another loss to the Gators.
But now that we're bought in to a rebuilding effort for the second year in a row, we look at Saturday's performance and find hope. We're getting quite good at it, in fact - we found enough good in a 35 point loss to Oregon to believe we had a chance against the Gators, and even when we didn't get it done we still point to growth. Never thought I'd see the day where we got so much praise just for playing hard for sixty minutes...but now that it's here, I understand its importance.
What we know about this team is tempered by the fact that we didn't get Florida's A+ game, and probably didn't get their B+ game either. Then again, the last time I thought Florida wasn't very good after they played us, they won the National Championship, so who knows. And when we try and project ahead, while Georgia and Ole Miss certainly appear to be vulnerable, South Carolina certainly appears otherwise.
The initial 6-6 projection most had about this team is probably still a good guess after three weeks. Saturday will be a good chance for this team to find a win before heading into an insanely tough October. But if it is truly about process, and if we are taking real solace in being competitive, then here are a few bright spots for the moment. They may not be what we're used to being excited about, but right now they're enough.
If Matt Simms is who he is, he's not the guy who will lead this team back to the promised land. Having just witnessed the great transformation of Jonathan Crompton last year, we shouldn't rule anything out...but Simms, through three games, functions as a caretaker most of the time. He's good enough to make the most of busted coverage, and he's bad enough to give points away in the red zone. But most of the time, he's taking care of the ball and playing it safe, either by choice or by design.
Those of us who didn't expect us to win 10 games this year probably don't expect it in 2011 either, falling back on the three-year window that new coaches always get. That means by the time the Vols (hopefully) arrive, Simms will be gone, and either Tyler Bray or Justin Worley will reap the rewards of his work.
But while the quarterback that will supposedly take us back to the promised land is still a complete unknown, many of the guys who will surround him are not.
The Vols have young talent that's becoming experienced talent right now at RB, WR, OL, DE, and DB. If/when the Vols struggle next year, you're going to hear a lot about the small senior class and hope for the future. Guys like Jacques Smith and any warm body on the offensive line are not having to wait, at all, to get in the mix. And so by the time this year's freshmen and sophomores are juniors and seniors, they'll have a world of big game experience and continuity with this staff to go with their talent...which is already helping the Vols just stay competitive right now.
If either Tyler Bray or Justin Worley is the real deal, the future for Tennessee's offense is extremely bright. Until then? Simms will do.
Nick Reveiz & Austin Johnson
If you haven't seen a game in person yet, you can't fully appreciate how hard Reveiz works to get this defense set before the play. Not only is he getting Wilcox's troops set before the snap, he's running Jeff Demps down across the field and finishing with 14 tackles.
When he comes out, Austin Johnson comes in and attracts the football like a magnet. Johnson will almost certainly assume Reveiz's role as the leader of the defense next year, meaning he gets an excellent opportunity to learn this year behind hiim. Tennessee is going to be very good at linebacker this year...especially when we're not playing Oregon or Florida.
Was it all really the quad? Whatever the reason, I'll take 5-for-5, including a 48 and 49 yarder. Our senior kicker has returned to his freshman all-american form, and even when the rest of our special teams continue to find new and creative ways to frustrate, a confident and healthy Lincoln has once again earned our trust.
What have you seen that's encouraged you about this team?