It’s #17 Pittsburgh vs #24 Tennessee, and I find myself elated to see that number next to our name.
In 2006 and 2007, the Vols played a total of ten ranked vs ranked games. In the fifteen years since, Saturday will make just our ninth such occasion. The other eight include:
- One game in year three for Derek Dooley
- One game in year three for Butch Jones
- Four straight games in year four for Butch Jones
- One game in year five for Butch Jones
- One game in year three for Jeremy Pruitt
And, as is in the nature of being ranked #24: win this one, and more will be on the way very soon.
“Soon” is the right word for this moment: soon, as in we’re here in year two. Soon, as in we’re here after being more vulnerable as a program than ever just 20+ months ago.
And soon, as in it feels like an even bigger opportunity is waiting on the other side of this one.
Of all those other ranked contests, the closest comparisons are the first two. In September 2012, the Vols returned to the Top 25 for the first time since the preseason poll in 2008. #23 Tennessee hosted #18 Florida. We lasted one week in the poll then, falling out for another three years until the preseason poll in 2015. In week two of that season, #23 Tennessee hosted #19 Oklahoma.
In both of those games, there were genuine, “Are we back?” moments. Midway through the third quarter against Florida, A.J. Johnson went beast mode and scored to give the Vols a 20-14 lead, then the Vols stopped a fake punt. We were close…then Florida scored 24 points in the game’s final 18 minutes.
I still think about halftime of the Oklahoma game. Maybe you do too. The Vols led 17-3 and were set to receive the second half kickoff. During that 20-minute break, the assumption was we were there. We were back.
And then, of course, we weren’t.
I don’t think “back” is on the table tomorrow, even though the rankings are similar. Some of it is Pitt’s name recognition, and some of it is the Gators in two weeks. But in the years that have followed those losses to Florida and Oklahoma, we’ve spent a lot of time talking about the value of moving forward.
And Tennessee is doing that much faster than we anticipated.
The numbers beside the names are similar, but this time the Vols are a touchdown favorite. On the road. Whatever your beliefs about the strengths and weaknesses of the Dooley and Butch teams, Josh Heupel’s groups have excelled snap-for-snap. Tennessee’s highest ranking in the 18-season history of SP+ is right now.
Last week in our expected win total machine, the Vols checked in at 8.03 projected wins. This week, that number is down to 7.93. But it’s not a reflection of how we feel about Pitt: Tennessee fans give the Vols a 63.5% chance to win on Saturday. That’s up slightly from 61.9% in preseason. The biggest change came not from Florida (59.5% to 52%), but Georgia, where fans moved Tennessee’s chances from 22.6% to 11.2%.
But neither of those are problems we have to solve today.
This weekend is an opportunity. And for all its connections to the past, going all the way back to Coach Majors, it is at its heart an opportunity to move forward to the future. Very much like the South Carolina game last year, this opportunity sets up the next one. Tennessee has done the work, ahead of schedule, to arrive back in the national conversation. To stay there, where other Tennessee teams have fallen off immediately, requires victory.
And here too, more than in the past, victory is becoming the expectation.