One of my favorite things about New Testament Greek is the way joy (chara) acts as a function of grace (charis). Happiness is circumstantial, etc., but joy is rooted in the idea and presence of grace: the one gives cause for the other.
I like this idea because sharing in joy together – to rejoice (chairo) – comes with the notion that you’ve been through some stuff together. A shared awareness of one’s need for grace helps create the opportunity to celebrate when you have it.
Plenty of hearts have been blessed around here this fall, the latest of a dozen that’s made us all queasy. We’ve been doing this long enough now to know hope always comes back at the start of each season; that’s what it does, and what we do. But it died in record time this year, with immediate resurrections denied by our Mormon friends at the last minute and all the old familiar places in Gainesville.
Capital-H Hope is what Phillip Fulmer hired Jeremy Pruitt for, eschewing the safety of Les Miles and the familiarity of Tee Martin for a guy who might win championships or might just be a really good defensive coordinator. The answer will continue to be, “We need more data,” for a while. That’s the message on the answering machine this season when you lose at Florida by 31 and feel bad about everything, and it’s still the message when you lose to Georgia by 29 and feel better about almost everything.
But along the way, we found a little more joy than we anticipated.
That’s one of the best things about joy, the surprise of it. We wrote on Friday that Jarrett Guarantano, Josh Dobbs, Nathan Peterman, and Justin Worley failed to produce a single touchdown drive in their first career starts as mid-season replacements. Brian Maurer, on play number six:
Then, on the 10th play of the next drive, Maurer wasn’t even kind enough to let people get back in their seats after the end of the first quarter before throwing a dart between coverage in the end zone.
One of the biggest issues for this team has been red zone efficiency. Take out Chattanooga, and the Vols had 10 trips inside the 20 but only four touchdowns coming into the Georgia game: 2-for-4 against Georgia State, 2-for-4 against BYU, 0-for-2 against Florida. After failing to punch it in at the very end of the game against the Bulldogs, Tennessee is still 105th nationally in red zone touchdown percentage. But Maurer made an A+ throw in a crucial situation.
The kind of hope we really want may not bloom in full until the off-season, not as long as this year is yoked to the failures of September. Tennessee will want to get to six wins, though the fullness of that conversation needs to wait until we see what this team does against Mississippi State. But if the Vols do beat this week’s Bulldogs, then after whatever happens at 9:00 PM ET against Alabama, we’ll be talking about if this team can make a run to the postseason by winning four of its last five games. It would be a tall order for a young team; I said on our podcast last night that 5-7, at this point, would be a genuine accomplishment.
But along the way, we might have some fun.
Brian Maurer had some fun against #3 Georgia, now 17th in SP+ defense. The Tide are 11th in those ratings. The rest of the remaining schedule:
- Mississippi State 48th
- South Carolina 26th
- UAB 47th
- Kentucky 64th
- Missouri 7th
- Vanderbilt 109th
When Tyler Bray caught fire at the end of his freshman season, we talked about having to wait to see him get to Level 2: there was only so much you could believe when the opponents were Memphis, Ole Miss, Kentucky, and Vanderbilt. Those three SEC teams had defensive SP+ ratings between 71-75, and Memphis was 113th.
That won’t be the case with Maurer. He’ll get a heavy dose of the kind of competition Tennessee needs to rise to in the second tier of the SEC East. He’ll get Alabama, of course. And he’ll also get a Missouri team that is rolling on that side of the ball at the moment.
If enough pieces around him stay healthy, we’ll be able to draw at least slightly more reasonable conclusions about his play. When hope eventually blossoms for Tennessee, whether through an unlikely bowl run this year or more tangible progress in 2020, its first fruits are likely to come in games like these. Credit Pruitt, Maurer, and everyone involved for taking a situation that felt mighty hopeless and injecting some genuine joy along the way.
We’re unlikely to forget Tennessee’s need for grace this year, and in particular Maurer’s. He’ll still have plenty of freshman moments in him, I’m sure. Hope, even if beneath the surface, is present. But the Vols now approach this Saturday with a little more than a bad combination of nerves, desperation, and idiot optimism.
Now, we might get to have a little more fun.