When I was 11, Superman died. It had the intended effect: me and thousands of others got invested in comic books thanks to Doomsday, one mammoth event leading to several others over the next few years.
The following summer, Batman got in on the action with the 18-month arc Knightfall. The turning point in this series came when Bruce Wayne faced a new villain for the first time. Kids today know Bane as a fun voice to impersonate. Eleven-year-old me was introduced to him when he broke Batman’s back in the summer of 1993.
The fight was reproduced in The Dark Knight Rises on the big screen in 2012, but the buildup in the comics was completely different. Knightfall starts when Bane busts all of Batman’s biggest enemies out of Arkham Asylum, then waits for Bruce to exhaust himself catching each of them before he faces him. And unlike Superman, who gave as good as he got against Doomsday, when Batman faces Bane it’s even worse than the movie: the entire issue is devoted to Bane beating Batman within an inch of his life in his own home. Child Will had nightmares after reading it.
I thought about this last fall as Alabama rolled through Knoxville, the only punches a depleted Vol squad landed coming thanks to Derek Barnett, who might actually be Batman for all I know. It wasn’t just the beat down, it was the buildup: Tennessee had gone through Florida, Georgia, and Texas A&M in succession before facing the top-ranked Tide. You knew that run was going to be trouble the minute the schedule was announced. But it was the how of it all that proved to be so exhausting.
What happened in the first half of last season was simultaneously so exciting and so draining, I kept thinking I wouldn’t have time to fully enjoy it until after the season was over. The Florida game is the most exhausted I’ve ever been walking out of Neyland, was swiftly followed by the single most exhilarating play in school history, then immediately followed by a five-hour, double overtime, 17-injury marathon at Texas A&M. Then Bama. And that’s just how exhausting it was for fans, let alone what it did to the coaching staff and an ever-thinning roster.
There are no excuses, as Butch Jones would probably admit; the second half of the season ultimately made the first half something you couldn’t fully enjoy anymore. But looking ahead with 10 weeks to go until kickoff, one thing is certain: thank God we don’t have to do it that way again.
The toughest stretch of the 2017 season is your choice of South Carolina, at Alabama, at Kentucky, or at Missouri, LSU, Vanderbilt. Either one is a tough SEC West draw book-ended by two of four from the traditional bottom half of the SEC East. Team 121 probably won’t be good enough to take anyone for granted and should learn from Team 120’s November mistakes in that regard. But no matter who does or doesn’t get hot in the league this year, there is no way Tennessee will have to face anything like those four weeks from last fall.
The first five weeks put Indiana State, 2-10 UMass, and the bye week evenly spaced between Georgia Tech, Florida, and Georgia. If the East goes as it usually does, the Vols won’t have to face any of their five most difficult foes on consecutive Saturdays.
How ridiculous was last fall? A trip through the media guide shows it was the only time in school history the Vols have faced ranked foes on four consecutive Saturdays. (EDIT: Upon further research, I put the bye week in the wrong place in 2013, which means Tennessee faced ranked teams on four consecutive Saturdays that year as well. So it’s only happened twice in school history, both times to Butch Jones.) Someone may have made this point as it was happening last year, but I know myself and many others were too caught up in everything that transpired in those four weeks to notice.
The most difficult stretches in modern program history may have featured higher ranked teams than #19 Florida, #25 Georgia, #8 Texas A&M, and #1 Alabama. But none of them included this kind of gauntlet on four consecutive Saturdays:
- 1991: Tennessee faced five ranked teams in a row (#21 UCLA, #23 Mississippi State, #13 Auburn, #10 Florida, #14 Alabama) but had a bye week after the first three and none were ranked higher than 10th. The Vols went 3-2 in this stretch, then two weeks later beat #5 Notre Dame in The Miracle at South Bend.
- 1994: Four of Tennessee’s first five opponents were ranked (#14 UCLA, #23 Georgia, #1 Florida, #17 Washington State) with a trip to Starkville coming between the Gators and Cougars. An inopportune time for your starting quarterback to get hurt on the first drive of the season, and a huge ask for a baseball player and a young freshman filling in. They turned out alright.
- 2002: Already dealing with season-changing injuries, the ’02 Vols played a six overtime game with Arkansas, then faced #6 Georgia, a bye week, #19 Alabama, South Carolina, and #1 Miami.
- 2005: A common theme in another disappointing year, Tennessee faced five Top 10 teams in eight weeks (#6 Florida, #4 LSU, #5 Georgia, #5 Alabama, #8 Notre Dame).
- 2007: Only one of these teams was ranked, but in terms of pressure I’d put Tennessee’s march to Atlanta on the list: the ’07 Vols had to win out to win the East against the Heisman runner-up from Arkansas, Vanderbilt in the biggest fourth quarter comeback in Neyland history, and at Kentucky in four overtimes. They then faced #5 LSU in Atlanta, the eventual BCS Champions.
- 2011: On four consecutive Saturdays the Vols faced unranked Georgia (where Tyler Bray broke his thumb), #1 LSU, #2 Alabama, and #14 South Carolina. Two weeks later Arkansas would become the third season-ending Top 5 team Dooley’s Vols faced. The only team on this list that failed to win at least one of these games.
- 2013: Tennessee played five Top 11 teams plus a bye week on six consecutive Saturdays (#6 Georgia, #11 South Carolina, #1 Alabama, #10 Missouri, #7 Auburn), the last two starting true freshman Josh Dobbs at quarterback. Whenever someone casts Butch Jones’ overall record at Tennessee in a negative light, remember this ridiculous run in his very first year.
Tennessee plays in the best conference in college football and has always scheduled aggressively. But it has never had to face four Saturdays like it did last fall, both on paper and in what those games eventually turned in to.
Bane eventually goes down to a new Batman, fighting with new weapons and new tactics. Team 121 will have to find new ways to win this fall without Barnett and Dobbs and many other old names to rely on. But the task itself will not be as exhausting on so many Saturdays in a row. If nothing else, 2017 should have a better rhythm. Hopefully it leads to a year we can all enjoy more fully.