On Dry Ground

For a while this season, I found myself waiting for enough distance to be sure we were out of the wilderness. Some of this is the ghosts of 2016, for sure. But coming in, that was a good goal for the 2022 season: put together the best year in 15 years, win 9 or 10 games, compete. Make progress. Have a season where, when it ended, we could all look back at it and say, “Yep, good job.”

And now, in part I find myself reminded of the Israelites: fresh out of Egypt, but because that was all they knew for so long, they still find themselves looking back. Meanwhile, the miraculous is happening all around them. And you don’t want to miss a single step of it.

That’s still the problem, in part: we believed there were steps to this, and maybe these Vols could take one or two this year. There are certainly supposed to be steps between 7-6 and 8-0. None of us ever dreamed it could happen so fast.

In fact, that’s one of my favorite things about blogging: there are more easily accessible ways to go back and see what you thought two years ago, or fifteen years ago, or whatever. And to do so is often humbling.

After a series of low points – Kiffin leaving, Kentucky in 2011, the back half of 2016, the vulnerability of Schiano Sunday – the Vols hit the last of these places in 2020. From halftime of the Georgia game, it was a steep fall to Kentucky, still the worst loss in terms of underperforming the spread in 40 years.

But after that, two trips to Arkansas and Auburn in November 2020 really put things in perspective. Against a Razorback team that went 2-10 in consecutive years in 2018 and 2019, Sam Pittman’s year one squad turned a 13-0 halftime deficit into a 24-13 Arkansas win. In that second half, Tennessee went three-and-out three times, then four-and-out, then three-and-out, then two interceptions. (Pittman’s Arkansas teams are a good example of the kind of step-based success that would’ve been welcomed here!)

At Auburn two weeks later (the covid year had all these bye weeks that made everything, you know, longer) the Vols again jumped to a two-possession lead, watched Auburn go back in front 13-10, then fired a 100-yard pick six late in the third quarter.

Around this time, we started writing about things in terms of exile, and not just wilderness. How a stiff neck won’t get you out any faster. And not to believe the prophets who tell you this can all be over soon.

And that, of course, is the thing.

Not only are the Vols clearly out of the wilderness, two years later.

Tennessee is the number one team in the country.

The miraculous is happening all around us.

It’s in my nature to be supportive, to rally around current coaches, all that. And I come up short on that plenty still.

And sometimes we just get it wrong. I was wrong about the amount of time it would take Tennessee to move forward from two years ago.

But I’m not sure I should have been.

We fans all want the sure thing, which never really exists. No one believed Josh Heupel was it two Januarys ago. And the longer you’ve been away, the more your stomach growls.

You don’t get out of the wilderness with a stiff neck. I think it’s more about simple obedience. Which, in this case, was the very non-rocket science answer of:

  • Hire an athletic director who is really good at their job
  • Let them hire a football coach who is also really good at his job

For all the ups and downs of a season that, if Tennessee makes it to the national championship game, is still only 53% over? My most emotional moment remains the morning of the Alabama game, watching the opening of College Gameday. Watching a song I’ve poked fun at more often than not. A song Tennessee used to be in, and then they took us out.

Even if Tennessee wins it all this year and Heupel stays forever, we won’t always be ranked number one. You can also miss the miracle of the moment by looking too far ahead. But right now, Tennessee is in the national championship conversation. One that’s getting ready to expand to 12 teams.

That’s the goal. Be there. And right now, the Vols certainly are.

And then when you make it all the way to the top? Man, be grateful.

I have no idea what’s left in these last 5-7 games. But we’re way past belief now, and into expectation. It’s Heupel’s own line about not putting a timetable on ourselves, just being as good as we can as fast as we can.

And this team is much better, much faster than it had any right to be.

There will be more time in the off-season to dive into all that. I simply use it today as a way of helping us not miss the miraculous.

Because it is happening all around us.

Go Vols.

5 6 votes
Article Rating
1 Comment
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
7 months ago

There is a decent chance this Tennessee team is 2008 Texas Tech. A great team, on a magnificent run with great skills players and a great scheme. But eventually runs out of gas in a November away game against superior talent. Beat #1 Texas and #8 OK St at home. If we end up being a 2008 Texas Tech carbon copy, I hope we can have fun and celebrate it. Just like them, we’ve had an amazing run. And just like I tuned in to those 2008 Tech games because they were so fun to watch, the rest of the… Read more »