For everyone out there like me who has spent the last two days feeling the way we usually feel when we lose a game, take heart: we haven't seen the real thing yet.
We have apparently seen the end of the UT playing career of Da'Rick Rogers, a strong candidate to displace Kelley Washington and pre-October 2009 Jonathan Crompton as everyone's least favorite former Vol. That career comes to an end with his name in the UT record book with the fifth best single season of all-time: 1,040 yards last year, a remarkable effort considering he was the only real weapon on an offense that played three different quarterbacks on a team that only played 12 games. Lest we turn this into a raging bonfire of hatred and good riddance, it's important to note the facts, and to say there's absolutely no way the Vols beat Vanderbilt last season without him.
But despite a truly impressive season, Da'Rick Rogers was, to us, always more about who he was off the field than on. And when we use phrases like "a remarkable effort", it must now also be said that his inability to stay on a team that seemed so willing to keep him around despite his off the field charms is equally impressive. By all accounts we've heard, Derek Dooley and Tennessee did everything it should have and then probably even a little more to keep #21 in an orange uniform this fall. But Rogers, through no fault other than his own, is no longer with us.
Without getting into too much "He was never with us!!!" and denying the positive on-the-field contributions he made, the loss of Da'Rick Rogers from a fan perspective is less about the player and more about the idea. As fans, usually at our most optimistic now seven days from kickoff, I don't think the majority of us are so upset because we lost a really talented wide receiver. And for me personally, honestly I'm working really hard not to get more upset about this than I should, because I'm not sure Da'Rick Rogers is worth it.
What's truly lost for this football team is more of an idea. The idea that the Vols could line up Tyler Bray, Da'Rick Rogers, Justin Hunter, Cordarrelle Patterson, and Mychal Rivera, and then dare anyone - anyone - to stop it. The idea that this was the most talented QB/WR combo in the history of the program, which is an incredibly bold statement that could have turned into an incredibly accurate statement. The idea that no matter how much the run game or the defense struggled, the offense could still win the day or at least go down firing. And perhaps above all: the idea that patience was dead, the Vols could beat anyone on their best day, all leading to the thing we all keep waiting to say: "Tennessee is back."
To those that feel like all of that was lost in the last 24 hours, let me again say: we haven't seen the real thing yet.
The passing game juggernaut we all envisioned has always been somewhat of a mythical creature, but never more than now. We saw it for two games last year, and one of them was Montana. We've probably used the word "Cincinnati" more than "Knoxville" this offseason. But that one game was enough to make us believe, even though it would be all we saw of it. And just as that one game created a level of excitement and expectation which then made it easier to tighten Dooley's noose last fall, so too will eight months of preseason hype around the mythical passing game make it hard for us to simply abandon all of our expectations. Life and college football aren't fair, and I have yet to find anyone making the "Why Derek Dooley now deserves four years" argument after yesterday. I truly don't know if this is right or wrong, but I know you can't ask us to be patient anymore.
What I do know is that we still haven't seen the real thing yet. The ceiling for the 2012 Vols certainly appears lower than it was 24 hours ago, of that there is no doubt. But more than the question many will ask - "Can Dooley still save his job?" - how about the question we all really want answered: "Can this still be a good football team?"
And the answer is...I don't know. But we're getting ready to find out.
Before we even talk about what we need Cordarrelle Patterson to be, here's what's just as important: the defense and the run game just got a whole lot bigger.
Can this defense - which is talented at linebacker and could be exciting up front - not be a liability, but a strength?
And can the run game, which will certainly matter more now, be effective? If you assume we know who Justin Hunter is already, Rajion Neal just became the third most important player on this team behind Bray and Patterson. If #20 has been good enough to truly become not Option 1A but Option 1, can he and this offensive line do it in a game? Can we really run the football effectively? That question matters so much more today.
What's lost is mythical: we saw it for sixty minutes in a game that mattered fifty weeks ago, and poof, it's gone. Fun to think about all offseason, but now it's gone and was really never real anyway. The Vols can still be good in the passing game, but they won't be what you were picturing in your head.
What remains is what's real, and it takes the field in seven days. How will it look? I have no idea. How good can we be? I don't know.
But we - and I mean all of us, including sites like RTT and others that exist because we are who we are as fans - we spend so much time in the offseason waiting for this week. We spend so much time breaking things down and picking them apart and getting excited about this guy and nervous about that guy. We spend so much time trying to figure it out that we sometimes forget that the best way to see what your team can do is to see what your team can do.
I have no idea what the Vols will do now. But I'm eager to find out. And I'm not going to assume anything. And I'm not going to cry about when it's going to be our turn to catch a break. And I am absolutely not going to let Da'Rick Rogers rob me of the joy that comes with these last seven days before toe meets leather.
So we leave Rogers and his mythical realm behind. What's ahead is a real football game that just got a lot more interesting, which is really saying something since we all already believed it to be the most important we've seen around here in at least five years. You want to get all woe is me and weepy on the ledge, I suggest you get back in the house til next Friday. We may all jump together then, I have no idea. But not yet. Not yet.
The 2012 Vols are 0-0. Let's not live like we're 0-1. The season isn't over, it's not even here yet.
Those that read here a lot or follow me on twitter know my second favorite sports love is the Boston Celtics. As many will remember, in Game 1 of the 2008 NBA Finals Paul Pierce went down with what looked like a horrific knee injury. And the overwhelming feeling wasn't just "Why us?", but "Why now?" Why, after waiting two full decades to get back to the Finals, why did this have to happen in the first game? Why did this have to happen to our captain, the guy who stayed, the guy who waited his whole life for this? It was crushing, and it felt like robbery.
And Doc Rivers went in the huddle, looked his guys in the eyes, and said, "Nothing stops us."
Da'Rick Rogers and our mythical passing attack aren't coming through that door in a wheelchair or on a unicorn. Let. It. Go.
What is coming through that door is the real thing, a season we've waited 272 days for, with seven left to go. The only way to know what this Tennessee team can do is to see them go do it. And the only way forward now is the only way it ever should have been: one at a time.
Can this team beat NC State?
Let's find out.