Kevin C. Cox
Once again the Vols are heavy underdogs, and once again Alabama could strike a serious blow against the fate of Tennessee's head coach.
In tomorrow night's pregame festivities, the 1997 SEC Championship team will be recognized on the 15th Anniversary of their accomplishment, and their head coach will honored for his first-ballot admission to the College Football Hall of Fame. A decade and a half ago no two men did more to change the course of The Third Saturday in October than Peyton Manning and Phillip Fulmer. The quarterback was the triggerman the night it all started, a 41-14 triumph in Birmingham that still remains one of the greatest wins in the history of Tennessee Football. And the head coach went on to dominate the Crimson Tide to the tune of 10-5-1 before you even bring the asterisks into play.
Both Fulmer and Manning will be present Saturday night. It should be the biggest pregame celebration since the '98 Vols were honored on their 10th Anniversary. That night came four years ago. You know, the last time Alabama put their fingerprints on our head coach's letter of resignation. From Joel's recap that night:
Remember that. Ignore this. Is that the message? Plug your ears and sing pleasant distractions to yourself so that you can't hear 15,000 rival fans in your stadium jeer that they "just beat the hellouttayou?" Fix your eyes on Holly Rowe on the sidelines because she's interviewing Tee Martin and because highlights of yore soothe all manner of ills?
Is that the message? Remember ten years ago, when we were good?
For Tennessee, The Third Saturday in October has become about things that happened a decade ago. And even worse, the fact that Alabama has won five straight doesn't hurt the way it's supposed to, because it feels like everybody has won five straight against us. As someone who remembers Alabama's run in this series from 1986-1994, you're supposed to come into a game like this excited that this might be the year! But now we're more concerned with our inability to win a big game, let alone the big game.
So, what do you want to see Saturday night?
Tennessee is a three touchdown dog, Alabama is ranked number one. The last two times we've danced this dance, the Vols have played their butts off for thirty minutes and then ended up on the wrong end of 31 point beatdowns. If the Vols play their butts off this time?
Tennessee has been competitive for four quarters in every game this season. Will this one be different? Alabama's biggest tests so far are Michigan and Ole Miss. How well do the Vols compare to those two?
There is no scenario where I can tell you with a straight face that Tennessee is going to win this game. There is a scenario where I believe the Vols can be competitive. But before we even get to that part, Tennessee has to show up. The offense has to be mentally engaged the way it has been every game this season. Derek Dooley has to have his guys ready to play, insulated or motivated from the hot seat, whatever works. If Tennessee's offense is as good as we think it is, we should be able to come out swinging and land some punches.
We've come to expect nothing from the defense, and even with Sal Sunseri going against his former team I'm done hoping for an instant transformation. The only defense in the SEC worse than ours is Arkansas'. The Vols give up almost 430 yards per game and more big plays than any team in the league. I'm 31 years old and I mean every word when I say it is the worst Tennessee defense I have ever seen and it's not even close. And those older than me may very well argue it is the worst defense in the history of the program.
It is literally impossible for me to argue that the defense is going to get better this week. I'm more than willing to listen to you tell me otherwise.
The nature of the opponent makes the nature of this game different than Florida, Georgia, or Mississippi State. Tennessee needed good things to happen early on those games to believe in itself. Tennessee needs good things to happen early in this game to believe they can hang with Alabama. If the Vols can land an early punch on a team that's been behind for less than one minute this season, confidence could grow.
Last year I flew out to Fayetteville and was rewarded with the worst Vol loss of my lifetime in terms of margin of victory. The season was so far gone even before that one kicked off. But I remember telling those I was with that I wanted so badly to be there the night it changed. To get to be there the night when we truly got to celebrate again, when Derek Dooley was finally introduced to Gatorade, to get a win that matters.
None of us are realistically expecting it Saturday night. But I will be there to support my team, carrying a tiny hope that one of these nights, things are going to go our way. It didn't happen for Phillip Fulmer in 2008. The anniversaries we celebrate are getting farther and farther away. And Derek Dooley is running out of time.
But once again, opportunity is now here. And they won't come any bigger than this. The win that we can't even imagine would be worth more than we could possibly imagine. Let's see if Tennessee has a pulse. I want to see us play with heart. And then let's see what our best punch is worth against these guys.