I actively try to avoid the phrase "getting back". As in, "Tennessee is back!" Because you can't nail down exactly when it happens. Because you'll then be tempted to fall into a million false starts (see: Alabama 2000-07). Because, back where, the late 90s?
But one of the signs that Tennessee is, you know, moving forward? This week and this Monday feel exactly the way they are supposed to feel.
Something big is coming at the end of the week. There's a monster at the end of this book. And it will take five long, slow, 24 hour days to turn all the pages. It's agonizing. And it's beautiful. And it's right.
It comes with all the trimmings. A full house, which isn't the easiest thing to do anymore. College Gameday back in town for their seventh trip to this rivalry, which puts Vols-Gators in a tie with Ohio State-Penn State for the second most covered Gameday matchup ever (Florida/FSU is number one with eight). Both teams are ranked.
And it comes with some newness. The "Derek Dooley and Will Muschamp are best friends!" angle might get played up more this time around. But the bigger deal this time is for the first time since the 9/11 delayed December 2001 game, both teams enter this contest having already picked up a big win. And both did it away from home in hostile and/or cursed environments. Is NC State better than Texas A&M? Which win should mean more? I don't know the answer to either question, but I know both teams already have one under their belt.
It's not that Tennessee and Florida tend to brag about beating the likes of Aggies and Wolpack(s?). It's that both teams, both programs, and both head coaches desperately needed those wins, and both teams left home and came back victorious. These should be confident football teams on Saturday night.
(And especially with UL-Monroe and College Gameday ensuring that this is the marquee matchup of the day regardless of where Verne Lundquist is, I cannot tell you how excited I am that this is a night game.)
But despite the newness, the Tennessee-Florida game matters for the Vols for all the reasons it used to and all the reasons it's supposed to:
The SEC East
What neither of us will say this week because we're too busy thinking about the other: Georgia looked really good imposing its will on Missouri in the second half, and with Auburn at 0-2 the Dawgs' remaining schedule is looking awfully thin on additional losses. So while both the winner and the loser here can still think about going through Georgia the old fashioned way by beating them head-to-head, what we must also both deal with is one of the two truly elite teams in this league in Alabama and LSU. So if the current assumption is both the Vols and Gators are going down in that game, the loser on Saturday night would then need to beat Georgia and have them lose an additional game. It's a new twist, but it's quite real. But it's also usually been the case that the loser of this game will have an extraordinarily hard time winning the SEC East. That's happened just three times (1992, 1997, 2007); this time around it may simply be that Georgia's talent + Georgia's schedule + LSU or Alabama eliminate the loser instead of the winner running the rest of the table.
Believe it or not, Tennessee and Florida have been doing this East Division rivalry thing for 20 years. What I know you'll believe is that the Gators have won 15 of them. So we enter this game with the familiar trepidation of if it can go wrong, it will.
These seven losses haven't been nearly as painful as the five the Gators handed us from 1993-97 because so much more was on the line back then, and because Florida was pretty much the only team that could beat us during that stretch and until recently, everyone was beating us these days. But I think it also remains true that the Gators' hold on Tennessee is stronger in the minds of the fanbase than those on the sideline.
See, we remember special teams disasters in 2005. Negative rushing yards in 2006. Arian Foster's fumble and then a whole lot of Tebow in 2007. The Clawfense in 2008. Kiffin's Moral Victory in 2009. Urban Meyer's backbreaking fake punt in 2010. And Justin Hunter's ACL in 2011.
But honestly, so much has gone wrong here recently that for the players and the coaches on this sideline, it's not exclusive to Florida. For Derek Dooley and these Vols, winning is a new experience. And after the Georgia Dome, it's one we like very much.
Even if it goes bad early against these guys, I think it'll be the fans and not the sideline that get the oh-nos. If that happens, it'll be familiar...because it's Monday, and I'm already dealing with dueling voices in my head. One says, "This is the year." The other says, "That's what you said last year. Again."
But the first voice isn't getting laughed out of the room this time. That's what I remember this week being about.
The Immediate Future of Tennessee Football
There's no question as to whether Dooley or Muschamp needs this more. Beating Tennessee is what Florida expects. Beating Florida would be a revelation for Tennessee.
Let's be clear: the Vols could lose this game and still have a nice season. Tennessee could lose and still win eight or nine games; while a loss would be painful it would not be the end for Derek Dooley by itself.
But in terms of momentum, this one is worth its weight in anticipation.
The way this used to work was beat Florida and the hard part's over. This time around the Vols have to beat Florida for the hard part to truly be worth something meaningful.
Whatever "back" is, we're not it because Gameday is here. And we won't be it with a win by 1 or 100 Saturday night.
But you want to keep moving forward? There's only one way to do that.
We've been saying it for weeks: there is a difference between survival and success for this football team. One will still be on the table no matter what happens Saturday night. The other is and always has been earned only by beating the Florida Gators on the Third Saturday in September.
Can Derek Dooley and this Tennessee team find success where so many others have failed against Florida? The entire nation will be watching. Just like it used to be...just how it should be.
It's Tennessee and Florida, Saturday night in Neyland. And it feels exactly the way it's supposed to feel on Monday morning. Will we find an even better feeling on Saturday night? Five more days until we find out.
Welcome to the longest week of the year. It's good to see you again.