In the last two weeks perception has been the biggest casualty. After the win over South Carolina many expected a straight-line ascension for Tennessee, even if it waited seven days for Alabama to hand it to us the same way they hand it to everybody. Perception said Missouri and Auburn were on par with us, at best, because that's what we believed in the preseason and human beings have an incredibly difficult time changing their minds when it comes to matters of passion.
Perception today made things look very simple for Auburn and very, very frustrating for Tennessee. The mistakes on special teams are inexcusable, a season's worth of kick coverage errors compressed into two quarters. It wasn't the difference between victory and defeat but it was the difference in competitiveness, something that would've made a huge difference in the way all of us feel right now after the last three weeks.
Perception also suggests what Auburn's offense was doing was so simple the Vols should've been able to make simple adjustments to stop it. Nick Marshall, if it makes you feel better, ran for 10 yards per carry against Ole Miss and 12.1 against Florida Atlantic. So the 15.3 he got against us today was a season high, but not completely unheard of.
Maybe it's also too simple to say talent was a huge issue today, again. It feels like we can't keep making that argument, but we also can't keep playing Top 10 teams and expect to not suffer more often than not right now.
The reality is deeper on all of these things, of course. Gus Malzahn's offense is so good in part because they make it look so easy, but there's a level of complex brilliance behind it. Auburn is legit, which isn't that hard to believe when you go back to 2010 and then look back at their recruiting since then. So is Missouri, a harder truth for us to embrace because they're still the new kids on the block and now they're 2-0 against us. But the quality of both Tigers can at this point no longer be denied.
So is it too simple to say we just got it handed to us by three straight Top 10 teams the way Top 10 teams should hand it to programs like Tennessee after the last six years?
The problem here is a happy one: South Carolina was also a Top 10 team, and so was Georgia when healthy. We remain most heavily influenced by what we last saw, and so just as the image of the Vols struggling to put away South Alabama vanished in the smoky grays, so too now what the Vols did in mid-October has been pushed aside by the present moment and its 131-36 margin of defeat the last three weeks.
The perception is we're not a very good football team. The reality? We've got two more games to decide.
Is Tennessee getting worse? Getting tired or beat down? Getting bored? Those are all questions Butch Jones must address and answer in the next two weeks. The final story of 2013, of Team 117 and its brick floor, isn't finished yet.
Back in July, we made the argument that the most important game of Tennessee's season would be Vanderbilt. Four months later, there's at least some truth to it. The win over South Carolina will remain The One Big Win for 2013. But if the Vols lose to Vanderbilt, the balance of the entire season will tilt to the negative.
We've got an off week first, and we need it. We need to get healthy, we need to get better, and we need to get our minds right. Butch Jones has done a lot of good in his first year, but his most important task right now is to convince this team, especially its seniors, to finish strong. To write a different ending than the ones they've known.
Tennessee's needs are simple - talent, speed, everywhere - and Butch Jones has done a great job addressing those needs in a number of ways through recruiting. It will still take a lot of work and a lot more time to get this program to a place where competitiveness is no longer a question and we can stop blaming the past for our problems.
But in the present, Tennessee's job is also simple: beat Vanderbilt, beat Kentucky, and no matter how bad it's felt the last three weeks we go home calling this thing a success.
One week to recover. Then one week til the most important Vanderbilt game, for us, in quite some time. One that will come with an additional dose of rivalry we've never known before because of what happened last year. Add in James Franklin and Vandy's own rising talent level, and we've got ourselves a real rivalry game on our hands.
We may be done playing Top 10 teams, but we're not finished with the big games. Not yet. The next one matters as much if not more than what's come before.
Can Butch Jones rally the troops and bring this thing home a winner?