Remember this play?
When writing about this moment the next day, we said this:
Two plays later we got an encore of Dobbs-to-Malone on a 38-yard touchdown against single coverage. When it happened last week, it was a giant sigh of relief. When it happened here, a stiff counter-punch to Virginia Tech’s opening shots, it signaled Tennessee’s arrival at Bristol Motor Speedway and prompted some of the fiercest fist pumps and high fives we’ve seen in the orange section in a long time: Nevermind those first quarter worries, the Vols we hoped for are here. It was one of the more satisfying moments we’ve seen in Butch’s tenure.
How much is here worth?
The Battle at Bristol was a bigger win than anything Tennessee got in four of the last six years, topped only by a pair of ranked home wins over South Carolina in 2013 and Georgia in 2015, each coming after the Vols had already lost thrice. And it keeps getting better: Virginia Tech has beaten Boston College, East Carolina, and North Carolina by a combined 137-20 since then.
But Tennessee is suddenly a long way from Bristol.
When the Vols beat the Hokies in front of the largest crowd to ever witness a football game, they showed they could handle a big stage. The method and the outcome made sense. But sense has been riding in the back seat the last three weeks. The best kind of madness is driving now.
A 38-0 run at the end of 11 years on Florida. A hail mary to beat Georgia. Seven turnovers in a game we still almost won at Texas A&M.
And now we’re here: Top 10 in mid-October, an offense playing with earned confidence and a patched-together defense playing its guts out. The front-runners for Atlanta not because preseason polls said so but because scoreboards don’t lie. Sixty more minutes of madness away from being on everyone’s College Football Playoff radar.
And it’s only #1 Alabama in the way.
At the end of this four week gauntlet that so far has produced the two most memorable wins of at least the decade and one of its most affirming losses, it can only be Alabama. We saved the best for last.
There’s been plenty of talk about 1998 with this team. But what’s coming tomorrow is so good, it stretches back even farther than that. 1996 is the last time a Third Saturday in October like this has come to Knoxville, two Top 10 teams in the SEC’s most important rivalry. And now with Bama number one and the Vols number nine, there has never been a Third Saturday in October to match higher-ranked foes.
At the end of a set of weeks we simply can’t believe comes the long-awaited return of something from many of our childhoods: a national-championship-relevant Tennessee/Alabama game. In Knoxville.
And I’ll tell you what else is great about this game.
To say the Vols have nothing to lose is ridiculous. If the Vols fall to Bama we will need Florida to lose a game. While waiting for that to happen, we can (and will) talk ourselves into the kind of chaos it would take for 10-2 Tennessee to get to Atlanta, beat Alabama or Texas A&M or whoever, and still sneak into the playoff with two losses. And beyond that, it’s Alabama. You always have something to lose and so much to gain.
An elite Third Saturday in October is blessed by the presence of championship stakes. But what will be absent are the kind of stakes we’ve had to associate with games of this magnitude for most of the last ten years.
If Tennessee loses to #1 Alabama, you don’t have to reassess the state of the program. You don’t have to wonder if the coach should be fired. You don’t have to counter the arguments of those who do. You don’t have to believe Butch Jones will never get it done the way it felt after so many Derek Dooley losses, or never get it done again the way some felt in the last few years of Phillip Fulmer’s time. This is the first big Saturday for Tennessee to be free of fear in at least a dozen years.
We’ve been unhealthy for so long, and we were showing signs and symptoms in the first half against Florida. And now we’re sprinting through a marathon wondering if our confidence can outlast our legs. And it is old, and it is new, and it is madness, and it is wonderful.