Last year Tennessee got its chance to make the first impression of the college football season. It was not a good one: the Vols were lethargic and lucky to escape against 20-point underdog Appalachian State, and it cost Tennessee nine spots in the polls. The drop was the second largest in the history of the AP poll for a team that actually won its game. While the events of week one would be quickly overwhelmed by the following four Saturdays, it took all of those events – beating Virginia Tech by three scores at Bristol, scoring 38 unanswered points to beat Florida, and escaping via hail mary in Athens – just to get Tennessee back to its original starting position at #9 in the polls.
The lesson: if you’re going to play on a national stage in week one, you’d better play well.
The national stage is something we shouldn’t take for granted, not yet. Perhaps the Vols were still warming up to it last season; I know the experience was a long time gone for fans as well. Consider this: from 2009-2014, the Vols played in the 3:30 CBS game just ten times. Four of those times the occasion was the number one team in the nation on the other sideline. In those six years the Vols played Florida four times and Georgia, LSU, and even Alabama just twice each on CBS at 3:30.
Most of our good and/or relevant moments in that span, like Kiffin and Crompton’s shocking takedown of Georgia? SEC Network. 2010 visit from Oregon? ESPN2. Friday night opener in 2012 against NC State? ESPNU. Should-have-could-have beaten Florida in 2014? SEC Network.
Aside from those ten games, I’d throw in College GameDay’s visit for the 2012 Florida game (on ESPN) and the 2014 trip to Oklahoma in the 8:00 PM ABC primetime spot as Tennessee’s only blips on the national radar. A dozen appearances on the national stage in six years. A dozen losses.
But in the last two years, the Vols have played the 3:30 CBS game seven times, and won three of them. Plus GameDay at Bristol in the 8:00 PM ABC slot, and I’d count the season opener with Appalachian State, and Tennessee won both of those. In 2015 and 2016, the Vols have been on the national stage nine times, and won five.
And they’ll be back tonight.
The stage isn’t success by itself, not like it’s been at places like Indiana this week. We’re Tennessee, even if sometimes we feel like we’re still trying to be Tennessee again. But we’re also Tennessee right now: still looking for a better year than the one Phillip Fulmer gave us a decade ago, still hopeful this one might be it. The Vols were very much in the SEC East race well before Florida looked like that and Jacob Eason got hurt. That part won’t change no matter what happens tonight. But we shouldn’t take the stage for granted.
The stage is exactly why you play this game. Conventional wisdom suggests you avoid having to prepare for Georgia Tech. But the stage on this night in this stadium is worth the risk.
Tennessee will walk into downtown Atlanta’s new spaceship at the end of a long off-season when what Butch Jones said generated more conversation than what he did. The champions of life/five-star heart stuff was poorly timed, but the head coach’s actions were those of a man who was plenty disappointed by what happened last year.
The Vols will face Georgia Tech with a new offensive coordinator, new strength and conditioning coach, and new position coaches at quarterback, wide receiver, offensive line, defensive line, and in the secondary. It is undeniable change; tonight we’ll start learning if it’s change we can believe in.
We’ve spent more than a year now on our podcasts talking about how Butch Jones is a tweaker: incremental changes over the long haul while hoping you don’t break what didn’t need fixing. This is another way to look at all the off-season changes, as the offensive coordinator and offensive line coach were in-house promotions. But Jones also learned for the first time last year what it’s like to be the head coach of a team with those Top 10 expectations.
As we’ve tracked the progress of this program, it’s noteworthy to track the growth of its head coach as well. Just as Tennessee has grown from an o-fer on the national stage to regular appearances and regular victories, so too might Butch Jones be evolving as a coach. What he says is less important than what he does. And whatever has or hasn’t been said about this team and these players, especially in comparison to their immediate predecessors, won’t matter at all compared to what they have a chance to do, starting tonight.
One year after a bad first impression on the national stage was the opening act for an unsatisfying season, Tennessee gets to make the last impression of college football’s opening weekend. Value the stage. Value the moment. Value the opportunity.