Let's talk about what we mean when we ask when Tennessee is going to be "back".
We wanted it to be Oklahoma. Wanted the clear statement, the chance to say that was then, this is now. And then, for 2.5 quarters, we were allowed to believe it was going to be that night. And then it wasn't, and then it was and then it wasn't again two weeks later, and now we're 3-4 in late October.
Tennessee wanted to get from Point A to Point B this fall. And what I think is happening here is we're realizing this team is going to find itself at Point A.5.
Some may say it was always where they were most likely to end up. Some will say the more optimistic visions many of us had for this team in late August were actually Point C. That may be true, but coming so close to actually getting there this season makes it even more disappointing.
This disappointment is the hardest kind of progress. But the most important word in that sentence is the last one.
In the short term, we may still talk most about the second word in that sentence. Seven games in, heartbreak is the dominant theme of the 2015 season, and there are no opportunities left in the regular season schedule to earn another win like Georgia, which is losing the numbers game in our collective memory. That heartbreak comes by way of at least two losses that should not have been, and all the faults of Oklahoma and Florida are still real. The Vols also lost a four point game to an Arkansas team built to beat them, and a five point game to Alabama which, as we said in the immediate postgame, makes it hurt even more because of the rivalry when it should hurt even less because of how good our rivals are.
And they may still hang around this year, heartbreak and disappointment. I don't know what's going to happen on Halloween and beyond, but it seems the most likely scenario is, even with the other three losses, we will be a 4th and 14 stop away from being the SEC East Champions. The Vols aren't dead in that race but basically need either a total Florida collapse or a mostly Florida collapse and a crazy three-way tiebreaker at 5-3. The closer we get to either collapse without it actually getting all the way there, the more that day in Gainesville will hurt.
That's how it works. The short-term memory of 2015 may be hurt.
The long-term memory of 2015 may be progress.
When we talk about being "back", sometimes we mean National Championships. That's happened six times in 119 years and only twice with consensus. Sometimes we mean the late 90s, which given the state of the SEC I'm not sure we're ever going back there.
Sometimes we're talking about Point D or Point F or Point Z. There is still plenty of room for Butch Jones and this team to grow, plenty for them to learn, and plenty of opportunity to win big games every year in this league. But the main reason we know those opportunities are real is because we just watched this team go the the wire with every good team on its schedule.
We didn't play Alabama close today because we were lucky. We nearly matched them in yards per play (5.2 to 4.9), and while the Tide did let a couple of interceptions slip through their hands, you may have heard we missed a couple or three field goals. This was an even football game, just like the rest of them, with the best team on our schedule.
And yes, it's true the Vols have blown leads in all four losses and fourth quarter leads with less than six minutes to go in three of them. But there's a difference in losing this lead to Alabama in Tuscaloosa via two incredible sideline catches and what happened earlier in the year. When it comes to some of the sins of Oklahoma and Florida, I think the Vols have made both adjustments and progress.
We can still get better. On our final drives against Oklahoma, Florida, and Alabama we committed costly penalties. Against Arkansas and Alabama we were sacked on our final drives, a young and even younger offensive line today still struggling to build a pocket when Josh Dobbs needs one.
But a significant part of being "back" is going out there with a realistic expectation of victory every single Saturday. Not just a realistic chance, as we wrote about after the loss to Georgia last season. A realistic expectation. And in that regard, we've arrived.
I've learned you can't really tell other people if a loss is a moral victory. That's all in how you take it and we all take them a little bit differently. We'll all have different answers on that one today, and many of them based on our age. Some of us outright refuse to believe in moral victories, others of us refuse to believe in them against Alabama.
But if you do believe in them, what I think we can all agree on is this, far more than the Georgia game last year, is the last one.
This won't be the last time we'll be close. Butch Jones, I'm pretty sure, will lose a game again. It'll hurt, again. But the way everything has progressed so far, this is the last time any of us will feel even a little bit good about it.
We've hurt a lot this year. We hurt because we're capable of winning. And when you see it against Alabama, you know it's true. This is progress. And in this regard, in showing up on Saturday and believing the Vols not just could but should win? At Point A.5 or whatever you want to call it, we're back in that conversation. And that's a great feeling, or maybe just a satisfactory feeling in the midst of this loss, but either way it's good news for Tennessee.
There are never any guarantees. Should the Vols stumble through these next five weeks, the conversation will change. After four brutally close losses in five games against really good teams, we're about to enter the taking care of business portion of our schedule. And I think there's a chance it becomes the unleash the fury portion of our schedule. This team should know exactly how good it is, and spend the next five weeks demonstrating it. Because almost everyone on this team is coming back; there's no abundance of seniors who might be tempted to mail it in with career goals unfulfilled, but instead a bunch of freshmen, sophomores, and juniors who know they're going to get another shot at Florida, Alabama, and Point C next year.
Butch Jones has had Tennessee in the forward progress business. It may have been slower than we wanted, assumed, or were able to legitimately believe was possible at times. But it is moving forward nonetheless. When we lose, it hurts. That's a great sign. The next sign of being a good football team is doing what good football teams should do to the rest of our schedule. And from there, we'll have a much better shot at the progress we all so desperately want next season.
But today was the latest, most powerful, and perhaps most painful proof that when you turn on your television or find yourself in Neyland Stadium to watch this team, you can believe in winning again. Against anyone, anywhere. And, even in the midst of pain, that is a great truth.
The way it hurts is the story of our year so far. But the progress being made is still the story of this program.