Consider what a win like this would have been worth last year. Or the year before. Or at any point in the last seven years.
It was still impressive today. But after a first half which felt at times like Tennessee was letting a motivated opponent hang around a little too long, the Vols left no doubt in the second half. And as they dominated, outscoring #13 Northwestern 28-0 in the final two quarters, it felt at least in the stadium not like the revelation it would have been in any other year this decade, but business as usual.
It wasn't, by the way. Tennessee's 45-6 triumph is the biggest win in the 30 year history of the Outback Bowl and the 51 postseason games the Vols have played since 1939, the fourth most appearances in college football. More impressive is how the 39 point win compares to what Tennessee has done against ranked teams: this was the biggest win for the Vols over any Top 25 team since beating Steve Spurrier and #9 Florida 45-3 in 1990.
We've spent much of the last two months talking about Tennessee already being back but it feeling different than we wanted, because its truth was revealed more through close losses than memorable wins. Today we witnessed another chapter from the same book: the Vols crushed a Top 15 opponent, and it felt head-noddingly normal.
Others can debate how good Northwestern is or isn't; they still go home with ten wins and a season to be proud of. Tennessee's strength isn't built solely on this performance. This was simply the most recent data point.
If you're going to talk up Tennessee for 2016, do it b/c the Vols've been good all year, not b/c they're crushing a mediocre team on Jan 1.— Bill Connelly (@SBN_BillC) January 1, 2016
And, oh yes, we're going to talk up Tennessee for 2016.
I've seen The Force Awakens twice. My first viewing on the Friday following its release was, in a strange way, a bit like being a fan of Tennessee or any other team you give yourself to. Episode I came out my senior year of high school, and just before graduation in May of 1999 dozens of us from Alcoa descended on Funscape (do they still call it Funscape?) at West Town Mall on opening night. Sixteen years later around a single dozen of us returned, plus or minus a few spouses, to see Episode VII at Turkey Creek. Early in the movie you realize how unique this thing is. You feel it. Here's something I care about a great deal, something that means an awful lot to me and has a way of bringing all these people together...and I have no idea what's going to happen! And there's nothing I can do to affect the outcome directly! But we're here, and we're emotionally invested, and we're a little nervous and a lot excited for what might happen next.
If you loved the movie, you probably also enjoyed the build-up. It doesn't come around every year. And senior year of high school was a long time ago. In some ways, the build-up becomes almost as good as the real thing (...almost).
We're going to talk up Tennessee. So are lots of others. There will be others who talk Tennessee down. Some will do it ridiculously and with little truth, like those mindlessly banging the drum of the Vols always being overrated. Others will do it with enough truth to make us uncomfortable, like how we might lose 3/4 of today's starting secondary if Cam Sutton goes pro. And we'll fuss and fight and argue with varying levels of truth and the ridiculous because this is our team and that's what we do.
But we're also going to enjoy it.
The kind of hype that's coming now hasn't been seen around here since 2005. And that sentence should be enough to temper it, at least briefly, since the Vols promptly went 5-6 that year. But this will be championship hype. The kind some will still say the Vols don't deserve because it's been x number of years since Tennessee beat Florida or Alabama or won a championship. And that's exactly why I'm going to enjoy it. Every word, every syllable between now and September 3.
I have no idea what's going to happen. But Tennessee is here. And we're a little nervous and a lot excited for what might happen next.