Last Saturday my wife and I brought our first child home from the hospital. As Tennessee goes, it was a pretty good day to not be paying attention.
It’s been different this week being so insulated from what everyone is saying about the Vols, both the voices I love and the voices that drive me crazy. Sometimes when we speak of “blocking out the noise”, we’re a red-faced kid with his hands in his ears: he may not hear it, but he is entirely focused on it. Maybe it’s healthier to just remove it from the equation and the decision-making process.
Sports are about the moments more than they are about the noise, the talent, or even the win total. Last year we looked at data from Bill Connelly at SB Nation on the best Tennessee teams of the “Decade” of Dominance. In a 13-year span from 1989-2001, Tennessee won four league titles, a national championship, and had the best winning percentage of any team in the SEC. But Connelly’s S&P+ numbers suggested Heath Shuler’s 1993 team was the best of that bunch. They were an exceptionally talented and dangerous football team. They just weren’t as memorable – in large part because their schedule gave them fewer chances to make those moments – as some of their less talented or even less successful Tennessee contemporaries.
One of my favorite tests for what kind of season Tennessee had is, “Did the Vol Network release a season highlight film?” Those years, since Johnny Majors arrived in 1977: 1985, 1987, 1989-90, 1993, 1995-99, 2001, 2003-04, 2006-07. It’s been so long since they had the opportunity, I’m not even sure what format they would sell it on anymore.
Sports are about moments, and not just the ones available to an established program competing for championships. Among the others, some of the most potent are the “we’re back” moments, which is why they come with so many false alarms. You can create a moment in any season, but ultimately the season itself has to be considered a success for that moment to last.
I think this is what has hurt Tennessee and Butch Jones the most these last five years: missed opportunities to score meaningful “we’re back!” wins, then blown opportunities to cash in even bigger moments in could-have-been championship seasons. Positive, lasting memories are outnumbered by moments that should have been or should have lasted.
There have been significant wins, no doubt, some of them bigger and better than anything around here in more than a decade. But when the seasons those moments came in didn’t end well, they traded some percentage of their pleasure for pain. We missed the chance to celebrate being back to competing for championships because there was no defining victory in that process. Then we lost opportunities to look back with nothing but joy on Saturdays that seemed built to last, but didn’t because the Vols didn’t finish the job.
Think about it this way: how many big Tennessee wins in the last five years don’t give you some kind of a “Yeah, but…” feeling?
Not as they were happening; if you’re a, “Yeah, but…” person in the midst of a big win, you need to get out more. But when we look back at them in the context of the entire season?
Last year Tennessee won a game at a NASCAR track, beat Florida for the first time in 11 years in the biggest comeback over a ranked team in Neyland Stadium history, and beat Georgia on a hail mary in the first five weeks of the season (and almost quadrupled down at Texas A&M). It’s not hyperbole to say I’ve never seen a string of moments like that in so few weeks as a Tennessee fan…which still makes it all the more painful when the Vols didn’t capitalize on them the rest of the year. When I go back and watch the second half against Florida or the last play against Georgia, there’s still a small but significant part of me that associates frustration with those games because the Vols didn’t ultimately cash any of it in.
How many significant, non-yeah-but wins for Tennessee in the last five years? How many are only freely and fondly remembered? For me, that list is:
- Josh Dobbs’ coming out party at South Carolina in 2014. Before frantic finishes became so common under Butch Jones, what the Vols did in the final two minutes and what Dobbs did all night were truly remarkable. When Jones throws around that, “We’re x-and-y in the last z games,” statistic, he always starts with this game, and rightfully so. This one holds up as Dobbs’ coming out party and the beginning of Tennessee’s ascent to national relevance.
- The Taxslayer Bowl start-to-finish blowout of Iowa a few weeks later, Tennessee’s first bowl victory in seven years and still probably the most dominant performance a Butch Jones team has had.
- A 45-6 win over #13 Northwestern in the Outback Bowl at the end of the 2015 season, which allowed the floodgates of championship expectations to open wide. This remains Tennessee’s largest margin of victory over a ranked team since 1990.
And I think that’s about it. The 2015 Georgia game might have been Jones’ most important win, but it had such a stop-the-bleeding component it’s hard for me to associate it more strongly in a different context. The 2013 win over #11 South Carolina was important because Jones did something in two months that Derek Dooley never did in three years, but when those Vols failed to earn bowl eligibility the moment faded. And the blessings and burdens of last year are still fresh on our minds, and inform a significant percentage of the conversation about Butch Jones.
Under their head coach, Tennessee has scored both talent and win totals better than anything we’ve seen in a decade, along with some significant individual wins. But what is missing are moments that get to last. Those moments are sport’s most precious commodity. The noise is simply a reflection of their presence or absence.
Are there still chances for Butch Jones and these Vols to make those moments? Outside of beating Bama, the schedule has turned in a way that we might have called advantageous had the Vols beaten Florida. But now a head coach and his 3-2 team in desperate need of those moments face a whole bunch of opponents they are always expected to beat, plus an LSU squad threatening to join that list. Tennessee could theoretically finish 9-3 – the program’s best regular season since 2007 – and frustration could still be the first word (although a 9-3 finish could lead to an opportunity for one of those kind of moments in a more prestigious bowl). Perhaps Jarrett Guarantano will spark an opportunity. But beyond Tuscaloosa, how much is left in this regular season that will move the needle? This season’s narrative has already shifted from meaningful football to curiosity about the coach. If it’s going to happen for Butch Jones in Knoxville, he will need to do a lot of winning in the next two months to get another chance to make those moments next fall.
I don’t know what John Currie and The Powers That Be at Tennessee are thinking. But I do know, no matter who is on the sideline, Tennessee needs those moments and needs them to last.