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That Which Unites

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A Tennessee program with familiar struggles prepares to face a unique week.

Kevin C. Cox

On September 30, between Georgia and Florida, we posted a story about The Fragile Final Steps:

Fans will now believe Tennessee is going to have a real chance to win every Saturday. It's ahead of schedule, but it's not idiot optimism.  It's what Butch Jones and Team 118 have given you every reason to believe.  It's such a simple statement, but was blissfully taken for granted for so long around here, it's nice to have it back.

The hardest work of the rebuild is behind.  But these next steps, the final steps between competitiveness and championships?  These steps are very dangerous.

One, because the expectation of competitiveness will quickly become the expectation of victory.  We're about one really good win away from that, and as such when the Vols don't win - and they almost certainly won't win the rest of their games this year - we can quickly fall back into impatience.  Perhaps impatience is woven into the DNA of top-tier football programs.

And here's the thing:  I'm the one who wrote it, and even I didn't buy it when push came to shove.

The Vols were beyond competitive with Florida, they should have won.  What we saw on Saturday in Oxford against the #3 Rebels wasn't like Missouri or Auburn last year, or even Oklahoma earlier this year.  Tennessee's offensive line woes made it feel much bigger, but that was still a two possession game with two minutes left in the third quarter before Evan Berry fumbled on the kickoff.

In the grand scheme of things, Tennessee is still making progress. But it doesn't feel like it, because we're in the dangerous middle ground between competitiveness and victory.  We've made enough progress to get close, but not enough progress to win.  And when the two come agonizingly close against your second-biggest rival one week and then they seem so far away at the end the next, we forget progress and become hyper-focused on only the present.  That present includes facts nobody likes about our offensive line, ones we've heard so many times perhaps we're starting to get bored with those answers so we conveniently and erroneously look elsewhere for the source of the problem.  Patience is on empty, not with Butch Jones but with the last seven years.  No one's having any fun right now, everyone is upset, and it feels a little less great to be a Tennessee Vol right now.

But this, my friends, is not the week for all of that.

This is the week, above all weeks, when it is best to be a Tennessee Vol.  The calendar will read October 25, but it will still be The Third Saturday in October.

Alabama has won seven in a row and is favored by 16 points.  The task will be tall.  It always is with these guys.

The last three times the Tide have come to Neyland Stadium, the Vols have been in a bad place.  In 2008 the empty seats late in #2 Bama's 29-9 win served as a final nail in Phillip Fulmer's coffin, a man who went 10-5-1 against the Crimson Tide and deserved far better.  In 2010 Derek Dooley's first team had not yet progressed to an expectation of competitiveness, fought for a half but then yielded to #7 Alabama 41-10.  Two years later Derek Dooley's last team was up against the wall coming in at 3-3 against #1 Alabama; they fell 44-13 with more fans leaving early to go home and talk about Jon Gruden instead.

This time Alabama comes ranked 4th.  Tennessee's issues will not magically disappear between now and Saturday night.

But what also cannot disappear right now is our support for Team 118.

See, that which unites us isn't Lane Kiffin.  Many Tennessee fans have chosen the healthier option of moving on; the best revenge is living well and Butch Jones has Tennessee on the right path there.

What unites us is Jacob Gilliam playing with no ACL in his knee.  Justin Worley getting hit over and over and over again and continuing to get up.  A.J. Johnson, a senior who's still waiting for the return on his investment of 11.1 tackles per game, which currently leads the SEC by almost two per game.  And 23 true freshmen who will earn their first stripes in the SEC's most historic rivalry this week.

What unites us is we're Tennessee, and they're Alabama.

Perhaps this week we can stop cheering for the team we wish they were, and simply be for the team they are right now:  young and exciting, young and flawed, young and learning so much on the fly.  Young and, through it all, moving forward.

Their education will include what it's like to play Alabama this week.  But it also needs to include what it used to be like to play Alabama in Neyland Stadium.

If we can get past the raised expectations and frustration, you will find both a team and a fanbase that are incredibly hungry.  This week only comes around once a year, once every two years in Knoxville.  Don't throw it away because you're upset the future isn't here yet.  It'll come.  But right now, it's Tennessee and Alabama.  Opportunity knocks.  How will the Vols - and Neyland Stadium - answer?

There's no better living than beating Alabama.  I'm eager to see us try.