Just listened to the Podcast this afternoon and heard all the talk about only being a 4.5 point favorite against Cincinnati (it's 7 now, by the way). Apparently, people haven't thought to much about them. I guess I'm somewhat of an anomaly then. I've already spent some summertime worrying about Cincinnati. In fact, in a schedule that includes road trips to Gainesville, Tuscaloosa, and Fayetteville and home dates against the defending East champion and the current #1 team on our BlogPoll ballot, what do I consider the scariest game? The Cincinnati Bearcats. Yes, the ones who were 4-8 last year. Seriously. And not just because they're this week. I swear.
Why do they scare me more than teams like LSU and Alabama? Am I worried about an Oregon-style beatdown, leaving nothing but away fans in Neyland for much of the fourth quarter? No, it's not that.
Cincinnati is the scariest team on the schedule because of a combination of us having the most to lose and the best chance of losing it. Sure, we're more likely to lose to LSU or Alabama. We're probably more likely to lose to Georgia. But if we lose to Alabama or Florida, what have we lost? Just one more year in which we didn't break strings of frustration? Honestly, six doesn't feel a whole lot worse than five. Losing to Florida, Alabama, LSU, or even Arkansas is the loss of an opportunity. But we'll have more opportunities. We play four top fifteen teams every season. All we need is one to make us start believing again. We're not national title contenders this year, and a loss against a top five team doesn't cost us as much as we wish it did.
But a loss to Cincinnati may cost us more than anything on the schedule. You could argue Kentucky and the streak. You could argue Vandy, Buffalo, or MTSU, just for the sheer embarrassment factor. But, guys, it's been five years since we've gone into the Florida game with any reason to feel like we even have a chance. Our hopes of getting back to the top, or even just of beating our #2 rival, have been smashed by week two. Four years in a row. A win over Cincinnati is another week to hope that this could be the year it all turns around. A win over Cincinnati gives us our first September victory over a somewhat competent team in five years. A win over Cincinnati gives us hope that the Derek Dooley era will be better than Fulmer's later years or Kiffin's one-night stand. Fulmer's 2008 Vols opened with an embarrassing loss to an awful UCLA team. Kiffin tantalized us in 2009 with a 63-7 opener that said we were back before crushing all hope with a 19-15 loss to a decidedly average UCLA team the following week. A win over Cincinnati is a breath of fresh air, a herald of better times. A loss to Cincinnati, and we get to go through it all again.
But it isn't just that the game is important--that a win would do (under-appreciated) wonders and that a loss would be devastating. It's that losing is a very real worry. The best comparison I can come up with for this year's Cincinnati is Kentucky without the monkey on their back. Not this year's Kentucky--Cincy can score. But all those Kentucky teams that pulled off wins over LSU and Georgia and South Carolina but just couldn't get it done against the Vols. . . Cincy is as good as those teams. But they aren't Kentucky. They aren't just going to hand the game to us because they've done it for 26 years. They're going to fight.
And they can score. Those 72 points last week were against Austin Peay. But last year's 69 against Rutgers weren't. They put up 590+ yards of offense three times last year. Tennessee put up 490 just twice, and one was against an FCS school. They scored 30+ three times in seven conference games, and they put up 450 yards and 29 points (in a 31-29 loss) against Oklahoma, who finished 12-2 and #6 in the country.
Are there reasons to be confident? Of course. Tyler Bray is coming off his best performance as a Vol, and we have two receivers whose early returns say they were ready to make the jump and become the go-to guy. And Cincy's zone defense and questionable depth at safety have Chris almost unable to contain himself. There are plenty of matchups in our favor, and there's a reason that we're a moderate favorite. But I can't help but think that anyone expecting an easy victory by multiple scores is in for an unpleasant surprise. We have plenty of questions of our own (starting with our running game and perimeter defense), and the Bearcats have plenty of weapons. Collaros in legit, and he isn't the only one.
In one of my favorite short stories of all time, several young children set about destroying major American cities with rhyming couplets and giant needles (Yes, it's as strange as it sounds. Yes, it's also amazing. Go read it now. Seriously. It was 10 pages in print; it'll take 15 minutes). The destruction of Cincinnati leaves much to be desired. "It wasn't a clean-cut holocaust at all. It was a clumsy, bloody, grinding job--not what you'd like."
We're not good enough to treat victory as a foregone conclusion and be disappointed in a win without style points. This game is more important to our season than any of us care to admit. If we can notch a win over the Bearcats with an ugly, bloody, grinding mess, I have just one thing to say: Eggs and Batter.