I went to the game yesterday. Brought a friend of mine from Athens who had never been to a game at Neyland Stadium before. Sat with Brad, who also brought a friend attending his first Tennessee game.
We did not pick a good day to introduce anyone to Tennessee Football.
But sooner or later, we have to ask ourselves what Tennessee Football is anymore.
Saturday wasn't the most accurate picture, of course. Just seven weeks ago the house was full and rocking. Against Troy there were fewer butts in seats than the 1986 Orange & White Game (and possibly Lane Kiffin's spring game too). It's not just how quickly things can change, it's how drastic and visible their consequences have become.
Here are the school records Tennessee is on pace to break this season:
- Passing Yards: 3,819 (Peyton Manning 1997) - Tyler Bray on pace for 4,061
- Receptions: 76 (Marcus Nash 1997) - Justin Hunter on pace for 80
- Total Offense: 482.8 ypg (1997) - Vols currently average 485.1
So yeah, the defense gave up 407 yards, but they'll get better. The defensive linemen need to tackle better, but the linebackers certainly do not. Everything NC State tried in the short passing game was eaten alive. This will be h-u-g-e against Florida. The Vols had nine interceptions in 2011 and four last night. And dare I say, did we see real and meaningful halftime adjustments to eliminate the gaping holes in our zone that Glennon found in the first half? The defense will get better, and will not face an elite offense until September 29, at least.
Instead, nine weeks later, the 407 yards the Vols gave up against NC State is the second best performance against an FBS foe this season. Akron got 344. Every other FBS opponent the Vols have faced has gone for at least 400 yards. The last three have gone for at least 500. And when you say "700 yards of offense" out loud, you hear how ridiculous it sounds, right? Like everyone knows you're exaggerating, only this too is another unfortunate use of "literally"? Like it belongs on a video game, except it's actually really hard to do on a video game?
The atmosphere Saturday wasn't Tennessee Football, but it was a different kind of rock bottom. It didn't hurt like a loss, but the cold truth is losses hurt much less than they used to. We won the game, which matters. But it matters so much less because for yet another November, the Vols find themselves with little of quality to play for.
If you're a fifth year senior student at UT this year, what's your favorite memory? The time we wore black jerseys, the time we burned couches, or the time we beat Vanderbilt in overtime? That's not just Tennessee Football today, that's Tennessee Football over the last five years. The Vols haven't been nationally relevant since 2007.
So 700 yards of offense tells me the football team is in trouble. But tens of thousands of empty seats and apathy inside and outside the stadium tells me the brand is in trouble. And that's a much bigger problem for a team that has to recruit outside its own borders.
Is there a period or a question mark after the title of this story? This is a dangerous and important time for us. And with openings at Arkansas, Kentucky, and probably Auburn looming, this thing can escalate into an arms race in a hurry.
I am very thankful for the work Derek Dooley has done in stabilizing the program. Things could've certainly been worse than they are right now; Dooley has clearly brought talent to the offensive side of the ball, and I still refuse to believe that our issues are all talent defensively. But if your argument is for status quo, consider what status quo in Knoxville is right now and has been for the last five years.
This is where the old "It's not. But it can be." argument cuts both ways. This is not Tennessee Football. But it can be. And that scares a lot of us, and rightfully so. As we should've all learned after we moved on Phillip Fulmer, there are no guarantees in this thing. It's taken Notre Dame's tradition two decades to get back in the fight. And all of Auburn's SEC might is worth nothing two years after a National Championship. There are no guarantees. And if the next steps the Tennessee program takes are poor ones in the wrong direction, empty seats in Neyland become the rule and not the exception. Tennessee Football is highlights on your DVD rack, not something to look forward to every Saturday.
But if our next steps are taken in the right direction, we're not so far gone that things can't change in a hurry. And at this point, any change and any meaningful win would resonate, creating an instant impact in the stands, with the brand, and with all we love about Tennessee Football. Those seats don't have to be so empty. Those yards allowed don't have to be so many. And those wins don't have to be so few and far between.
I don't know exactly what the steps will look like or who they'll be taken by. But we all know the right direction, in our bones and in our blood. That's Tennessee Football. And everyone involved with Tennessee Football must do everything they can to make sure it moves forward in the right direction. It's not right now. But it can be. It can be.