All week, I've dealt with one of the nastiest sinus infections you'd ever expect to have this time of year. Now that I'm on the tail end of it, all that is lingering is a bone-rattling cough. Every time I unleash a cough, the bark leaves a painful, ragged, barren feeling in its wake.
That's pretty much a microcosm of the way I feel about the Alabama football series.
For six painful years, we've been left with that ragged, hollow feeling in our souls. The Crimson Tide has simply ripped us apart, embarrassing the Vols in five of those seasons. The past three years, it hasn't even been a contest, thanks to their superiority and our being stuck with one of the worst gameday coaches in SEC history.
But for all that pain that really looks like it may not end any time soon, we have to take heart that there's a 1995 waiting around here somewhere. Surely, it can't be too far down the road ... I mean, if college football really is cyclical, as they say. While you couldn't find anybody who'd predict that repeat performance will come this year [don't even get your hopes up, Vols fans], my complete faith in Butch Jones to turn things around has at least led me to flirt with the idea that competing with Bama -- who happens to be the nation's best right now -- isn't so far in the future anymore.
I dream of a repeat of '95 all over again, when the Vols were ready and pounced on Alabama. That was one of the greatest feelings I've ever had as a UT fan. For two years, we'd been so close to winning that game -- tying in 1993 with David Palmer's 2-point conversion and narrowly losing in 1994. It had been a nine-year drought that had ground every UT fan's nerves into a pile of dust.
Then, this happened on the very first play of that 1995 game:
1995 UT-Bama first play (via USAFVol)
Peyton Manning to Joey Kent set the tone and a glorious 3 1/2 hours later, the Vols had exercised that hateful ol' crimson demon. It took that long to make it official, but, in actuality, the game was over 11 seconds into the game. And, oh, what a glorious game it was. It included a beautiful bootleg by Manning and several incredible runs by Jay Graham.
That win started our own little [big] run of dominance, and turned the Tide for a while longer.
I know it probably seems like a distant hope right now. They've won three of the past four national championships and are the definitive favorite to do it again this year. Nick Saban is pulling in top-ranked recruiting classes every season, and football is again the biggest factory in Tuscaloosa.
But the beautiful thing about college football is, every four years, you've got a new cast of players cycled in who may just be better than anybody else's team. They've never played a down and they aren't even signed, sealed and delivered yet for UT, but does it really seem like a stretch to you that Jalen Hurd could be running on the Tide like Todd Gurley did last year or that Todd Kelly Jr. can't have a similar impact as Stephon Gilmore did a couple seasons ago? Probably not as freshmen, but, I mean, the Vols look like they're getting good players again. And when you're recruiting good players, anything can happen.
Alabama is going to be incredible again this year, especially with A.J. McCarron directing that offense as a senior. But, behind him, all is unproven. And we all know that you've got to have a pretty good quarterback to win big in the SEC. Greg McElroy was good enough for Bama, but, sometimes, you just don't have anybody salvageable. Who knows what they're going to be in a couple years?
Talented? Yes. Unstoppable? Who knows?
There's at least hope again that we can close the gap. No longer are we having to pump up our hopes with "diamond in the rough" Dooley recruits like Dominic Zanca, Zach Barnes, Tino Thomas and Alan Carson. If Jones can recruit the way it looks like he can, we'll close some talent gaps. With them, and especially with the rest of the league. Again, it won't happen this year most likely. But someday -- the law of averages says soon -- the Vols are going to have some heroes come up big in that rivalry game and make it a RIVALRY again.
This year's probable struggle is just going to make it one year closer.