The Other Side of the Desert

So here’s the thing: I’ve never actually written about a Good Football Team before. (For reference: I wrote from 2009 to 2017 or so, give or take a few months. I think. Memory is hazy these days.) Sure, you could argue the first half of Tennessee’s 2016 was a good team; on the other hand, that team gave us Champions of Life. I don’t think I can count that. I enjoyed 2012 way more than anyone had any right to but that team wasn’t good. (I’m not not planning on writing a Milton vs. Bray Tale of the Tape in ::checks calendar:: June? Man, being good at a lot of sports now is weird.)

2007? That season was hilarious and I will always enjoy the drive-it-like-you-stole-it ness of everything after Georgia, but I hadn’t started writing yet. 2001 and 1998 pre-date my Tennessee fandom; they aren’t really my teams in the way they’re Will or Joel’s (or your) teams.

Is there any other season pre-Heupel that would fit? I don’t think so; we had Good Football Moments, but not really Good Football Team.

Enter 2022, or rather, enter 2021 then look behind you. Pruitt wasn’t going to work out; regardless of the process that led us to Pruitt, you can’t run the 2012 Alabama playbook with less talent in 2018 and expect better results; even Alabama wasn’t running the 2012 Alabama playbook.  I still think the process ended up in as good a place as we could’ve hoped for, even if we ended up as College Football Twitter’s main character for a solid three weeks. Regardless: brunch and a desire to just move on did Pruitt in; another season or two would’ve done the trick.

Anyway, back to 2021. What did I know about Josh Heupel? Well, his teams were fun to watch; I probably watched more UCF than I did Tennessee for a year, maybe two. UCF games were reliably fun for a neutral and the 12 lead changes in almost every game didn’t matter to me since I didn’t really root for UCF. Would I call those UCF teams good? Eh. They were fine, and they were fun, and honestly during the Pruitt era “fine” and “fun” were enough for me to turn Heupel into appointment viewing.

And hey, that’s what 2021 was! It was fun, and it was fine. Watching Heupel’s teams a little more closely made me realize he tries to coach teams with a high floor; run enough plays and be successful enough to score on a couple more possessions than your opponent and that’ll be enough to beat most teams you have more talent than.  For all Tennessee’s struggles, there was still talent. The questions were twofold: 1) could Heupel recruit enough to raise the talent floor? 2) could Heupel get teams that had more talent? We saw flashes of the latter—Georgia 2021 being the best example, even if they were never winning that game—but we didn’t know if that was going to be anything past a flash.

I thought going into 2022 that 8-4 would be, you know, pretty good! We might be able to hang with Alabama or Georgia for a half but we weren’t deep enough, and I guess Kentucky or LSU or Florida are good so maybe beat one of them too, win the rest, and we can call that momentum. That sounds good, right?

Well.

About that.

It didn’t really start to click with me this Tennessee team was a Good Football Team until the third quarter of the Alabama game. That timing is a little weird, right? They blitzed LSU (and we didn’t think that LSU was any good until November, so while ending the LSU game before noon Central time was impressive we didn’t know if it was good, beat Florida but in a way that really didn’t feel comfortable, and even the first half against Alabama was the kind of early-game carnage we had seen before.

But the third quarter? That’s when I realized Alabama was emptying the tank against us. They didn’t have a choice if they wanted to win the game; that’s when I realized we belonged. We were a Good Football Team.

Of course, we know how that game ended, and we know what it feels like to be back at the top of the mountain, if only for a few days. Yeah, it was only a few days, and yep South Carolina sucked (it looked like a Madden-style No Way Game), but 10-2? That’s pretty good. 

Demolishing Vanderbilt after losing Hendon Hooker? Proof of concept this is sustainable. We didn’t necessarily need to know that, but another hallmark of a Good Football Team is being able to handle key losses.

While we’re here: beating Clemson was ….comfortable? As comfortable as three missed field goals by Clemson could be considered comfortable. It felt unhurried, like the team knew how to play to win instead of playing to not lose. Will talked about this a lot already; I’ll come back to it once I knock some of the rust off.

I have no idea where it goes from here; it looks sustainable and I don’t think it’ll stop being fun, but it’s worth looking back to remember how far we came. This whole Good Football Team is pretty new for a lot of us; it’s okay to take some time to reflect.

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