The last time Tennessee was ranked, we lasted one week. It came and went the same week as our last time to host a ranked match-up, as #18 Florida scored the game's final 24 points to begin the end for Derek Dooley and #23 Tennessee in September 2012. Barring something strange when the poll is released after tonight's Ohio State/Virginia Tech showdown, the Vols will have their first multi-week stay in the Top 25 since 2007. You have to go back one year further to 2006 to find the next most recent ranked match-up in Knoxville, a heartbreaking 28-24 loss for the #8 Vols against #13 LSU, which also represents the last time Tennessee was in the Top 10.
Any dreams of the Top 10 or aspirations to simply stay in the poll will have to go through Oklahoma. The Sooners may have finished 8-5 last year and unranked for the first time in five years, but they handled the Vols 34-10 along the way and come into Knoxville with loftier dreams of their own for 2015. Tennessee may have been the favorite in off-season chatter, but Oklahoma took the opening line at -3 on the road.
It's better for Tennessee this way, honestly. Whatever humility Matt Johnson didn't teach them, being the underdog again should give them the proper perspective. And when you're looking for just your second win over a ranked foe in six years, you need perspective. Tennessee hasn't earned anything yet. But this is the week to earn it.
Last Saturday the Vols struggled early defensively but dominated throughout offensively. Oklahoma had the opposite problem. With 5:30 left in the second quarter Tennessee led Bowling Green just 21-20. With 5:30 left in the second quarter Oklahoma led Akron just 3-0. Both eventually figured it out in big ways; the Vols outscoring the Falcons 38-10 from that point and the Sooners likewise 38-3 to the Zips.
Significant questions and significant praise abound. For both teams the opportunity is significant as well. The Sooners look to distance themselves from that 8-5 season, to prove it was just an aberration and not hear that they are just 5-6 in their last 11 games with a loss on Saturday. Tennessee is looking to prove itself in more general terms, with perhaps a little less pressure (especially as an underdog) because its primary goal is still divisional instead of national, a race that cannot be won or lost on Saturday. For the Vols, this game is their best chance in years to separate the past and the present. This is their chance to stop talking about the future because this is it.
Just getting far enough, in recruiting and on the field, for this game to matter like this is a great thing this week. It's been three years since we've had one like this and no one remembers it fondly. That means you have to go back once more to 2006 to find the last time the Vols cashed in on a ranked match-up in Neyland Stadium.
That day is one some fans have wishfully compared to what this one could be. But there's no need to be greedy, a lesson many of us including yours truly learned the last time we checkered Neyland. On this Monday, five days before, it's great simply to reflect on having the opportunity before us again.
But if the Vols can get it done Saturday, it would be a moment the likes of which no one has seen around here in eight years. For some of our younger fans, it might be their first taste of what Tennessee Football can be. And for the rest of us, a reminder of what she once was.
This program is in great shape right now. There will be plenty of other chances and plenty of other chances this year. But this is the one before the Volunteers this week. Welcome back, big game. We haven't seen you around here in a long time. And the Vols can make it one we'll remember long past Saturday night.