I can't recall ever feeling this way about a game like this before.
The Tennessee Football program should be and is expected to beat the Cincinnati Football program. That's what we'd expect in almost any other year, and it's what we'd expect against any other Big East team. We spent the entire offseason projecting this game as an automatic win...because why not? Tennessee may be down, but Tennessee beats Cincinnati. Surely.
But the last two times I felt this way about our "inferior" marquee non-conference opponent, we left severely disappointed. Tennessee was significantly better than UCLA on paper in both 2008 and 2009. Both times, we simply assumed victory, even with a change in offensive coordinator and head coach. And both times, we were handed a cold, swift dose of reality.
Tennessee fans are used to September disappointment. But we used to have to wait until the third weekend to taste it. Since divisional play began in 1992, only four times have the Vols gotten past the Gators in mid-September. We're used to weighing our chances for the season as a whole by what we do against Florida. But in the last four years, we haven't even made it that far without stumbling.
Cal in the season opener in 2007. The UCLA losses in '08 and '09. And last year's disaster against Oregon. And if you dig a little deeper, you'll find near misses against Air Force in 2006 and UAB in 2005. That's just the pre-Florida stuff, to say nothing of last year's affair with UAB or the 2008 loss to Wyoming.
Everything I've know about being a Tennessee fan says we win this game. Automatic. Bring on the Gators.
But everything I know about the last three years says nothing is automatic.
And I truly have no idea what to expect tomorrow.
The 72 points against Austin Peay don't scare me. But their 4-8 record last season doesn't make me feel safe either. Because while Tennessee is supposedly on the rise and putting it all together, you know who else is in Year Two?
They're in it with a veteran quarterback in Zach Collaros, who helped the team to a Big East Championship in 2009 and is a three year starter. They're in it with Isaiah Pead, who ran for 806 yards that season and another 1,029 last year. And they'll spread the ball around in ways that can expose a very young defense. These are just a few of the reasons why this game is scary.
Cincy's defense, on paper, is not very good. But the best word to describe Tennessee's defense is still "young". Both will face offenses that are very capable of taking advantage. But we still know more about Cincinnati's offense than we do Tennessee's. And we're still judging Tyler Bray based of his performances against average-to-terrible defenses.
The defense he'll see Saturday won't change that, but here's what else we haven't seen: what happens if Cincy comes down the field and scores, the Vols turn it over, and Cincy scores again? What if this team gets in a hole early? Who in that huddle knows how to fight back? Who in that huddle will lead?
Cincinnati may be a Big East school, but they're a Big East school whose best players were in a BCS bowl two years ago. They have a ton of experience on both sides of the ball, and are in the magical Year Two with their head coach. This is not a team that will go down quietly. Ask Oklahoma last year.
And Tennessee is not what Tennessee used to be either. I know this because in my head, I'm already telling myself not to overreact if we lose.
This is what happens after the last three years: you stop assuming.
Here's the beauty: no one wearing a Tennessee uniform or coaches polo has ever had any real success in it. But most of the guys who'll play haven't had much failure in it either.
These young Vols have the chance to write their own legacy. Far enough removed from past success, but not responsible for past failure. For Derek Dooley and these Vols, it is in many ways a blank slate. Where the program goes from here is their story to write.
In this story, you can't run before you walk. Before we get all consumed with whether or not this team can beat the Gators or anybody else in the SEC, we have to realize that beating Cincinnati would be accomplishing something this program hasn't done since 2006: start a season 2-0. For that and a million other reasons, this is an incredibly important football game. The story of this season can go in two very different ways depending on the outcome.
So maybe this is what it's like on the other side. Maybe we've learned our lesson as fans and gone through enough losing and enough drama that we've stopped assuming...and stopped taking victory for granted. And maybe it's now, at this point, when we'll enjoy winning the most.
Maybe this is what Alabama fans felt like before the Clemson game. Or what Georgia felt like before the Hobnailed Boot. Cincinnati may not be as good as either of those opponents, but the Vols may have been in a deeper hole.
Either way, it's not about "getting back". It's about going forward. And the first true step along that path goes through a talented, experienced Cincinnati team that has just as many reasons to value a win over the Vols.
I have no idea what we're in for tomorrow, but I can't wait to find out.