Every snap matters.
Six years ago, Tennessee came to a season it knew would matter more than most. The 2005 Vols had gone from preseason top five to five wins. Randy Sanders was let go as offensive coordinator, a head coach's final move before the head that rolls is his own. Tennessee was either going to get back, or Phillip Fulmer was going to get gone.
It took less than three quarters for the Vols to decide which one it was going to be.
And so we went, from that joyous Saturday afternoon against Cal deep into the 2006 season, back toward the top again. The Vols were ranked 8th the first week of November, 7-1 with our only loss by a point to the eventual National Champions. Georgia had been dominated with a nearly perfect fourth quarter. Alabama, vanquished. South Carolina, business as usual.
But every snap matters. So when Erik Ainge turned his ankle late against the Gamecocks, it mattered the next week when Jonathan Crompton came up just short against LSU. When Arian Foster fumbled in the Outback Bowl, it meant the Vols had started 7-1 and finished 2-3. 9-4 in 2006 was enough to save Phillip Fulmer's job for 2007; the second half of 2007 was enough to save Fulmer's job for 2008. And one of the greatest and most relevant what if's for UT football - What if Erik Ainge doesn't throw two interceptions in the fourth quarter in the Georgia Dome? - has left the Vols out of the championship picture ever since, and perhaps just as critical, failed to shut the door on a future without Fulmer.
Our dreams have a habit of going to the Georgia Dome to die.
Tennessee's last snap as a nationally elite powerhouse was taken there, where late fumbles by Travis Stephens and Donte Stallworth sealed Tennessee's fate in 2001. Our last chance at an SEC title was intercepted by LSU six years later. Even Bruce Pearl, whose run at this university was more of a dream than anyone's, was rumored to have met his end through Georgia Dome conversations between Mike Hamilton and Mike Slive at the SEC Tournament.
In 29 days, we're going back. And the answers we find there will tell us a lot about the answer to our question today:
Is this the year?
For all they say about we Tennessee fans, we're not so bad. We're actually pretty understanding, or at least we have been the last two years.
Say what we did about Derek Dooley at the time he was hired, the point became, we were in this together. A program that had fallen so far so fast, abandoned in the middle of the night by some kid we barely knew but defended to the death like you do for your football coach, now matched with the son of a legend looking to make his own name by saying yes to a school few wanted a part of at that time. We were in this together.
Given the state of things, we knew it would take time. We did. We knew six wins would be success in 2010, and when we got it we felt good and celebrated in appropriate fashion, right up until the end of the Music City Bowl took that away.
We knew last year would be the bridge. Teams tend not to go from 6-7 to 12-0, and we were okay with that. So it made sense this time last year to say six wins, eight wins, ten wins in Dooley's first three years made a lot of sense.
Then several snaps against Cincinnati changed that. Then the worst possible thing happened: one snap at Florida changed it again, only in our minds there was no going all the way back. Even when Tyler Bray got hurt two games later, you couldn't just turn it off. What we saw against Cincinnati made us believe that last year could be the year...and that made it much harder to just shrug our shoulders and say, hey, sometimes injuries just wreck you.
But even that could've been left alone, if not for the way things ended last year.
The Kentucky loss doesn't matter right now. But if the Georgia Dome goes the way it tends to go, it'll matter a whole lot.
Every snap matters in every season, but every season does not stand on its own. Coaches don't operate under one year contracts, and fans treat these things very much like a relationship. And too often, that relationship is defined by, "What have you done for me lately?"
Beat NC State, and no one will care about Kentucky. Lose to NC State, and it'll get brought up by at least three callers on Vol Network postgame coverage. I dare you to take the under.
This is how it works.
But here's how I hope it also works: the man who inherited the mess gets to stay around long enough to see it cleaned up, shiny and new again.
The main reason I hope Derek Dooley succeeds this year is because I want to believe that the story ends the way it should. The guy who pulls you out of the ditch is the same guy that takes you to the mountain top. It hasn't worked that way other places, most notably for Mike Shula. But it still can here.
I like Dooley's personality, love his press conferences, and think he's funny. None of this matters one bit in winning football games, the main thing he's hired to do and the one thing we're still not sure if he can do. But we're about to find out. And for all of our sakes, I hope the answer is yes.
I also hope the answer is yes because I don't want to look back in five years, when Tyler Bray, Da'Rick Rogers, and Justin Hunter are all stars in the NFL, and wonder how in the world we didn't win when they were here.
I hope the answer is yes because I'm afraid of what will happen if the answer is no. I'm afraid of having to rebuild relationships with recruiting. I'm afraid that even if things will be more stable than when Kiffin left, unless the Jon Gruden rumors come true this time the next guy will be just as little of a sure thing as the last guy, whether that's Kirby Smart or Bobby Petrino or anywhere in between. I'm worried in a mostly-joking-but-serious-enough-to-make-me-sweat way that Vanderbilt will win 8 games against their cupcake schedule, we'll go 5-7 and lose to them, and we might actually consider hiring James Franklin. More than anything, I'm worried that if the answer isn't yes, Tennessee Football will again live in the land of mediocrity, only this time we'll know it's not a temporary stay. We could be patient for Year One of Lane Kiffin, because we were just happy to not be arguing about Fulmer anymore. We could be patient for Year One of Derek Dooley, because we were in this together. And we were going to be patient for Year Two, but then Cincinnati and injuries and Kentucky. And now we're out of patience, and rightfully so. And if we are asked for it again in 2013, I'm worried it will have to be for more than one year.
But as always, we must be less afraid of the risks than we are joyful for the reward.
I hope the answer is yes.
Because I. Am. Ready. To. Win. Again.
I'm ready to win again. I'm ready to be in the airport in Atlanta on a fall Friday and not get condescending looks from other SEC fans. I'm ready to pull out in front of the guy with the houndstooth license plate and have him get extra pissed because of my Rocky Top window decal. I'm ready to sing Rocky Top in the second half.
Every August, even the last three years, I have found myself just as eager for football season to get here as I have been the years we knew we would be great. My excitement has not and will not ever diminish when the Vols run thru the T, because some things simply do not disappoint. But whatever is there in September has died a quick death before October in the last four years. We got just a small, seven day taste of it last year between the Cincinnati and Florida games - a brief reminder of, "Hey, remember when we were good and you spent all week in cruel and beautiful anticipation of Saturday because you couldn't wait to see what we could do?" I'm ready for that again.
I'm ready to go into every game - and I mean every game - and know in my bones that we've got a real chance to win.
I'm ready for Tennessee Football to matter not because we're changing coaches, suffering injury, or losing in some particularly heartbreaking fashion again. I'm ready for Tennessee Football to matter because we're winning.
And there is no middle ground.
This question will have only two answers by the time we're done. The dam finally breaking on our patience leaves no room for anything else. It's win or go home. Here. Now.
And so, here we go.
Derek Dooley will meet the press tonight. Practice starts tomorrow. You've made it to August, congratulations. Actual news is coming every day.
And then in four weeks, our dream goes to the Georgia Dome. And in what will be without a doubt the most important Tennessee Football season in recent memory, there are only two answers:
Yes or No?