The official countdown moves to single digits today, but for me the real number is three, not nine. Friday, Saturday, and Sunday are all that stand between the long and rambling off-season and the familiar rhythms of game week, feeling like home. And not home after the wind and rain of multiple losses have beat against the windows and threaten to take down the door. But home, clean like new and renovated with new additions you're telling all your friends about.
One weekend, and then it's Monday and there's an opponent. This year provides the extra day's grace with a Sunday night game, meaning no matter what happens to the Vols on August 31 it won't stop us from enjoying a full weekend of college football the three days before. But Sunday is coming, and it is real and it is close. And it is dangerous. And it is great.
The Vols moved to Utah State yesterday in practice. The fanbase has still spent most of its time thinking about the Gators or Lane Kiffin this off-season. But make no mistake, the Aggies are a threat of the non-Lou Holtz variety. And it is this game, long before October, that will make an incredibly strong first impression about this Tennessee team.
It's Utah State, not Tennessee, receiving votes in the preseason AP poll. It's receiving vote, singular, to be more specific, but the point remains: right now this Utah State team is a more proven commodity than this Tennessee team, even if we weren't playing a billion freshmen. The Aggies won 11 games in 2012 and nine last year even with the elusive Chuckie Keeton on the shelf for half the season. Their defense finished fifth in yards per play allowed and returns most of its front seven.
The noise is coming, worth only the attention we pay it: "Talking Head, give us an upset pick for week one!" "I'm taking Utah State over Tennessee! It shouldn't even be considered an upset!"
The noise about Tennessee includes the words "freshmen" and "schedule" first on our lips, a very dangerous combination. But the schedule doesn't get difficult later and Utah State is not a warm-up. The important games start right now. There will be so much to see next Sunday night, a spectacle of so many new faces who will be relied on immediately. A loss to the Aggies would be one more reminder that this is still an ongoing rebuild. But a win, any win, should be celebrated.
When we think about home we often think of our childhoods, and for many of us those days were filled with memorable Vol victories. These days memory creation is a much more difficult task; we're much more likely to recall where we were the night Kiffin fled than anything that's happened on the field in six years. Last year we got South Carolina, but the inability to finish off the season with bowl eligibility denied us true, tangible, memorable progress.
But if there comes a day when Butch Jones is holding a championship trophy wearing orange and white, there is a chance we could point back to this season, this team when it all began. When all these freshmen first came onto Shields-Watkins Field and took their first steps. When things in Knoxville finally started moving forward again.
If this year could be the start of something good, Sunday night could be the start of that something.
No one ever knows for sure, especially the first week of the season, but this one has an extra thick layer of uncertainty. More than NC State in 2012, a game we won. More than Cal in 2007 or UCLA in 2008, games we lost. Utah State, for all their proven strengths and returning hero at quarterback, has had a massive overhaul on the offensive line and in the secondary. At the open practice last week the Vols had six newcomers working with the ones and black stripes on half the helmets with the twos. I have no idea what's going to happen when the whistle blows.
But here's what I do know: before the whistle blows, something close to 102,455 people will show up in orange because they believe in hope. And they believe in Butch Jones. And it will get very, very loud.
And that T will open and this team will come roaring out for the very first time, the one moment that simply refuses to disappoint. And then it's here.
We've been waiting for nine months. And we've been waiting a lot longer than that. Sunday night will be the beginning for Team 118. But it could be the beginning of something much bigger.
What story will these Vols tell?
We all can't wait to find out.
See you Monday. Go Vols.