The season is a dozen weeks away.
Preseason magazines continue to line the shelves, and Tennessee continues to find itself on their opening pages. Seven in Athlon. Sixth in Lindy’s. Fifth in ESPN's FPI. I’d never heard of McIllece Sports until now, but they’ve got the Vols at number one.
Tennessee has earned these expectations through elite recruiting and championship-level competitiveness. But because that competitiveness most often manifested itself in near misses last year, the Vols have arrived as a championship contender without some of the surprise that typically accompanies such a journey.
Butch Jones scored a significant upset of eventual #4 South Carolina in his first season. He ended a five year streak in the Georgia rivalry last year. And he has led Tennessee to a pair of dominant bowl victories over an Iowa team that would follow up with a Rose Bowl season and a Northwestern team ranked 13th before they met the Vols.
As we know, there is still much left for him to do. And there are legitimate expectations the Vols will do it now.
Along the way, can we still be surprised? Can we still find the joy in things we haven't seen in a long time while carrying an expectation we should see them?
Surprise is a hard sell for Tennessee fans old enough to remember the 1990’s. You can get used to anything, including winning every Saturday. It’s a beautiful burden.
There are only a few times I can remember watching the Vols rise significantly above that burden for genuine, joyous surprise. They all involve some level of rebounding after disappointment made you question those expectations. And then Tennessee responded in ways that made you remember why you believed the Vols could and should win every Saturday in the first place.
2006 Cal. 2003 Miami. 1989 UCLA. Changing rivalries in 1995 in Birmingham and 1998 in Knoxville.
These opportunities are out there for Team 120. Unless you want to count 2012 NC State (and I don't), Tennessee hasn’t won its marquee regular season non-conference game since those Golden Bears were blasted in Knoxville ten years ago. Since then the Vols have lost at Cal, to UCLA twice, Oregon twice, and Oklahoma twice. Beating Virginia Tech in Bristol or Knoxville or Blacksburg or in the parking lot of a gas station on I-81 would represent something the Vols haven’t done in a long time.
The Vols beat Georgia last year, but haven’t won in Athens in ten years. Bristol and Bama and Florida will get more print, but the trip between the hedges might be the one with the biggest impact on Tennessee’s ultimate destiny in 2016.
And yeah, there’s Bama and Florida. The Crimson Tide, you guessed it, 2006. The Gators, 2004. It’s been a long, long time.
The Vols have arrived in the championship conversation with baggage from a decade ago. If the Vols do in fact stay in that conversation this year by taking care of old business? We shouldn’t miss the chance to treat it like it's brand new.
The last time a Tennessee team found itself in these kind of conversations was the men’s basketball team in 2008, ranked seventh coming into the year. But because their previous two years included a Sweet 16 and a two-seed in the NCAA Tournament, there was little uncertainty with that squad until well into February in Memphis. An expectation of excellence can easily lead to things like nitpicking three point wins, which has a way of robbing the joy that should come with being in those conversations.
That’s where the Vols will find themselves coming into the 2016 season. But fulfilling those expectations would mean doing things the Vols haven’t done in 10+ years.
Are you willing to be surprised?