When I think about the “how long has it been?” conversations, I think about JaMarcus Russell.
JaMarcus Russell has been out of the NFL for six years. He was the number one overall pick three years before that. And the year before that he led #13 LSU on a 15-play, 80-yard drive, throwing a touchdown pass on third-and-goal from the four yard line with five seconds left to beat the #8 Vols 28-24 on November 5, 2006.
That was the last time Tennessee was ranked in the Top 10 until today.
Tennessee’s last offensive snap before that LSU drive (which we’re always quick to point out would have been much shorter if instant replay was around in 2006 when Russell fumbled before being ruled down) was this one: freshman Jonathan Crompton in his first meaningful appearance, heaving and hoping and creating expectations for himself. Erik Ainge had tweaked his ankle the week before at South Carolina, another great what if. That’s Robert Meachem pulling it down and scoring against double coverage, one of his five catches for 121 yards and two touchdowns helping make him a first round pick five months later.
It was an incredible game, the kind only two really good teams can play in November because it still has championship implications. And that play, that bomb from Crompton to Meachem, is the last time we got to lift our voices with the same implications in Neyland Stadium. The last time we got to believe our team could still be the team. Until now.
Preseason polls are largely meaningless in the context of each individual season. There are valid arguments we shouldn’t even have them until October, though we all enjoy them far too much for that to ever happen.
But they are not meaningless in the arc of a program over time.
Tennessee doesn’t win anything for being ranked 10th in the first coaches’ poll. For Team 120 this is the least important week for poll data. And the most powerful truths we believe about Butch Jones are yet to be written, set to unfold over 13 Saturdays starting just 28 days from now.
But this ranking is one final validation of the truths we currently believe about Butch Jones. He has done something that eluded Phillip Fulmer in his final two years, Lane Kiffin for a few short months, Derek Dooley for three long years and three more slow, brick-by-brick years for Butch himself.
But now, for the first time in 10 years, Tennessee is back in the Top 10. For the first time in 10 years, the Vols will pull up a chair at the biggest table and see if they’ve got what it takes to win.
We’ll spill so many words on Jones this season in some ratio of praise and blame. But today, he deserves a few more of praise for just bringing us back to this point. For recruiting like a team at the big table even when we were losing more than we were winning. For not being the first choice for this job when it came open, not being Jon Gruden, and not being several other guys several of us wanted, but jumping right in with both feet and embracing the fan base anyway. For dealing with the adversity he didn’t choose and the adversity some of his fingerprints are on from fourth quarters past, yet still driving his teams to consistently make forward progress every single year.
That progress has led us here, where the fourth quarters will matter much more and he’ll get his chance to write a better ending. We’re all waiting to see what Butch Jones can do with a team capable of winning championships. I’m sure on some level Butch is too.
All of that will answer itself, and soon. But for the first time in 10 years, thanks to Butch Jones, we get to pull up a chair and be dealt in to the biggest game in college football.