It has been, literally and figuratively, the longest offseason in Tennessee Football history. Phillip Fulmer left the field on the shoulders of his offensive linemen 273 days and 39 Saturdays ago, and it'll be 40 when the Vols finally retake the field next week.
It has also been one of the most interesting offseasons in Tennessee Football history, for reasons that we've spent the last nine months analyzing and discussing. But for all the coaching hires, all the five star recruits and all the verbal jabs that Lane Kiffin has brought to the table, none of it has been able to get the bad taste of 2008 fully out of our mouths. And while all of it helps set the table, none of it matters as much as wins and losses.
But now, those opportunities are finally, finally upon us.
College football is like anything else: you get out of it what you put into it. If you're reading here, chances are you're putting something into it...which means the last two years, you've spent eight months waiting for it to come around again, like Christmas but better...and then as soon as it arrived, it was immediately tainted. The Vols have lost the opener in each of the last two seasons, and when they kept losing last year we came to the quick and awful realization that we spent a lot more time waiting for the season than the season spent being relevant.
But we keep coming back.
And every year when we get to this point, with our heads anxious of the unknown and our hearts screaming to bring on the Gators, we hope that this time around, the story will have a happy ending.
Every season tells a story. Last year's, while interesting in all the wrong ways, was also tragic and horrible and any negative adjective you can imagine.
40 weeks later, it's time to atone.
Three important things to remember as we enter the very best days of the year:
1. This season cannot possibly be as difficult as last year was
Yes, the Vols could lose more than 7 games. But when you factor in the failed expectations and the dismissal of the face of the program for the past 17 years, the emotional difficulty for players, administration, fans and everyone associated with the University of Tennessee peaked last season - even if the Vols are somehow worse on the field in 2009, it won't feel as bad as 2008 did.
Plus, as Kiffin's first season and our first taste of something new in 18 years, it will not be boring.
Going a step further, six wins would be an improvement and the majority agree that eight wins would be a success in 2009. If you're Lane Kiffin, you picked a great year to start.
Kiffin's ultimate success or failure won't be decided this year. And as a program, the Vols could continue to slide if Kiffin isn't successful, and the days of competing for championships in this conference could become an afterthought and a distant memory. The program itself could certainly fall further.
But from just one year to the next, no matter how much the Vols may struggle in '09, it simply will not be as painful as '08. And the lowered bar leaves plenty of room for surprise.
It's going to be better this year.
2. Jonathan Crompton cannot possibly be as bad as he was last year
And if he is, he simply won't be playing.
We've blamed Dave Clawson before and we will again (Bowling Green plays Troy on Thursday night, and parts of me will want to skip South Carolina/NC State just to watch that game in hopes that BGSU's offense fails miserably, both to make myself feel better and to make Clawson feel worse). Crompton doesn't have to win the Heisman or sniff the All-SEC conversation to improve. He won the job in the spring and kept it in August, he won't be asked to throw 41 times when the Vols are averaging more than five yards per carry...and most of us hope that by simply not being in the Clawfense, he will be better. Even a decidedly average year from the senior quarterback would be a significant improvement. Like the team itself right now, he has nowhere to go but up...and he just can't possibly be that bad again.
He'll have a fresh start against a weak opponent at home in the opener. He's earned the right to get another look under center, and deserves our support, if for no other reason than he's our quarterback. And it may not be spectacular...but it will be better.
3. Every game counts...no, really
The only thing more interesting than a roller coaster is a train wreck.
Before last year's nightmare, 2007 was one of the most interesting seasons we'd seen around here in a long time. The losses were catastrophic, in the opener and to our biggest rivals, and none of them close. The wins were euphoric, blowing out the eventual #2 in the nation, shutting down the Heisman frontrunner and willing our way to Atlanta.
As that season wound down, once Georgia beat Florida the Vols faced four must-win SEC games in a row. And aside from the aforementioned Arkansas beatdown, the Vols went to the wire (and beyond) with South Carolina, Vanderbilt and Kentucky...and for once, all three of those games really and truly mattered.
A decade ago, we got used to the idea that the only game that truly mattered was Florida, and we'd take care of the rest. And even just a few years ago, there were only a handful of games that were question marks on the schedule, and our assumed talent would be enough against the rest of the field.
Two years ago, the season ended in Atlanta and the Vols won a championship...and many fans questioned whether or not that was a good season. Two years later, we've been forced to push the reset button on our expectations...and right now, that can be a very good thing.
As the Vols and much of the rest of the SEC have now met in the middle, this season they all count.
The only "sure" win is the opener, and as the first game of the Kiffin Era it'll carry plenty of importance by itself. From there, there are no guarantees - including Ohio, Tiger High and Vanderbilt - and so not only is each Saturday an opportunity to get one of the six wins needed for bowl eligibility, but it's a chance for Kiffin and this team to build their identity and their foundation.
We spend 40 weeks waiting for 12 Saturdays to roll around. You only get 12 chances at this, 13 if you earn it, less than any other sport. The limited opportunities help make college football the ultimate risk/reward game. And this time, for the Vols they all count. And we should have a greater appreciation for that this year, for each and every game and each and every win, now more than ever. When you remember that they all count, you get a much greater return on your investment.
Every season tells a story. And all across our great conference, hope is at its very best this week. They hope for championships in Gainesville and Tuscaloosa. They hope everybody is right about them in Oxford. Even in Lexington, where they really just hope basketball season gets here, thoughts of the story ending well are strongest in the last weekend of the offseason.
So in Knoxville...we hope. The past is over. The stories of the last nine months are done. Everything Lane Kiffin has done has been building to this point, and everything that happens in the next three months will be of first importance.
And right now, there's nowhere to go but up.
No more waiting, no more speculating, and no more of the old story:
At long last, game week is here.