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Tennessee vs Oregon Preview - Loading Up The Wagon

A long way from home, a long shot at victory...


When I get fired from this blog when Bowling Green goes undefeated this year and the football portion of my brain simply ceases to process information, I'm hoping to get picked up at an old video games blog. I have lots of words left in me about how the Super Nintendo was the golden age of gaming and will destroy kids who claim anything other than original NES titles like Ninja Gaiden and Battletoads is, "like, the hardest game ever!"

But mostly I will write the TL;DR stuff you're used to about how these things that can seem inconsequential actually have a way of bringing us together. I've spent an embarrassing amount of hours of my life with the Chrono Triggers and Final Fantasies of the world (Final Fantasy VIII was the real answer to, "Why did you lose your scholarship?"), but the games you remember most are the ones you played with other people. If you're my age you and your friends know long nights of Goldeneye, the dark arts of the blue shell and the Hadouken, and countless hours of NCAA.

But long before we were blowing on the cartridges or putting a fine layer of toothpaste on discs, we were booting up that Apple II in the elementary school library and playing Oregon Trail.

The memories of Oregon Trail linger for a number of reasons, starting with the fact that everybody played it and not just the kids lucky enough to have their parents buy them Nintendos. At my school I recall us having to play it as part of some class somewhere along the way, but then again, why wouldn't you want to play it? And aside from the fun of shooting buffalo and naming your party the sort of names third graders choose, Oregon Trail had an insanely high replay value, because it was really freaking hard for a third grade kid to beat it.

I won't lie, I played it tonight before writing this. Research, etc. Two of us bought it at the first river crossing and the last body dropped just outside Soda Springs. It's still hard.

But even though third grade Will could never beat it, it kept third grade (and adult) Will coming back. You didn't need to beat it to feel like you'd accomplished something. You just needed to get a little closer.

So after 400 words about video games, let's talk about tomorrow.

Tennessee is a huge underdog, three touchdowns becoming four once the line got loose in public. This will be the 11th time Tennessee has faced a Top 5 team since 2007, and the sixth time the Vols have faced a Top 2 team since 2008. Other than the near miss in Tuscaloosa in 2009, in those games the Vols have lost by 20, 10, 31, 31, and 31. The last time we saw Oregon they were somehow ranked only #7, and they beat us by 35. In Knoxville. In a game that was tied at halftime.

In this and many other aspects of Tennessee Football, there's a lot of room for improvement. And improvement is the most reasonable thing we can expect to takeaway from Saturday in Eugene.

We've already seen it from Butch Jones in recruiting, and we've certainly liked what we've seen against an FCS opponent and a dangerous mid-major team that happened to feel particularly generous that day. Oregon is a cut above, a unique animal that plays at the same general level we expect from the upper echelon of the SEC. Some have made the point this week that because of their style of play, we're actually less likely to beat the Ducks than beat Alabama this season. Either way, the likelihood of victory is low...but because of the grace due a new head coach and the good faith Butch Jones has shown, I think the expectation of victory among Tennessee fans is appropriately low as well.

See, here's what we want to avoid at all costs: "Well, same old Tennessee." Because yeah, the talent level still isn't where we want it to be and we're still thin in some dangerous places, especially against a team that likes to run 100 plays a minute. But Butch Jones has been doing everything to convince everyone that isn't the case anymore, and that this program hasn't just stopped digging, but can move forward. We don't have to win to prove that point. We just need to get a little closer.

The news about Tyler Bray and especially Maurice Couch is, if you will, the fever that's crept up over this game. Hopefully it's just a fever and we'll get over it in a few days. Hopefully it doesn't linger and end up costing us a chance to move forward. We'll have to wait and see. For now, all the Vols can do is take another step forward and go play.

Because here's what I also think, and I think many Tennessee fans think it too: Florida is next, and they look beatable. Going down 21-16 to Miami? Even better.

Granted, the Gators have looked beatable this time of year several times before, especially the last two autumns, and since 2005 we've been wrong about that. But again, Butch Jones has a way about him that's made people believe, and already made a tangible impact on this team. I want us and them to go to Gainesville believing we've got a chance to win. And if Oregon decimates us by 40, I don't know how much of that will remain.

I also don't want Justin Worley to struggle so mightily that we spend all of next week talking about whether we need to make a quarterback change instead of how we can upset the mighty Gators. Tennessee will almost certainly trot out its impressive offensive line and its seasoned tailbacks and tell Oregon's defense to come get some. How long will it work, and what will Worley do when the Ducks bring more than we can block to the fight? We're about to find out.

I expect Tennessee to put up a better fight against Oregon this time. It's not because I expect us to play them closer than five touchdowns as much as I expect this team to play hard for its head coach for a change. We are young and learning, and the education we'll receive on Saturday can be valuable down the line if we can learn from it and not regress from it.

And that's the motto all first year head coaches following the guy that got fired will preach: the past is the past, focus on the present, focus on getting better. Tennessee may not beat Oregon, but we can get better on Saturday and give ourselves a chance to beat one of the other big guns on our schedule. You and me and all of us want to move forward, and I think we can leave Saturday's game feeling okay about that even in defeat.

And hey, you never know. Sometimes the seals don't break and your wagon doesn't sink. Sometimes a fever is just a fever and it passes in a few days. Sometimes when you have a moment when your wagon breaks you can fix it right away and move on. Sometimes you can dictate pace with your ground game and play for and make the breaks defensively. Because the longer you play and the better you do, the more you start to think, "Okay, maybe...maybe this time..."

Maybe the Vols will find a way to be there in the end. But even if we don't, we can still show improvement, we can still put the past behind us, and we can still move forward with confidence in Butch Jones. We don't have to beat the game. We just need to make it a little closer.

Go Vols.