Pandemic, month whatever, and the thing I’ve found most helpful during these crazy days still comes from March of 2020:
If you want idiot optimism, of course, we have that too.
We also spent a lot of time before, during, and immediately following the transition from Pruitt and Fulmer to Josh and Danny talking about exile, and patience. That’s probably still a good idea. It just goes on vacation in Week 1.
Thoughts and prayers for Nebraska, but for the rest of us, this is one of the best weeks of the year. Everyone is undefeated. For Tennessee, it hasn’t been about staying that way in quite some time. But for all of us – Vols included – it is about what’s possible.
To be sure, one thing that’s possible is the Vols struggle right away: losing to Pittsburgh, blown out by Florida, losing at Missouri. If that happens, we’ll fall back on patience. But the self-preservation instincts we’ve been forced to acquire watching our team the last four years will come more naturally and more quickly, and there will be less immediate engagement. I’ve seen it happen in basketball: “Eh, we’re not there yet, I’ll check back again next year.” That’s possible.
But there are a few versions of the possible that we’d find a little more intriguing.
It’s possible Joe Milton is a significant upgrade at quarterback. It needs to be probable that Milton, or Hendon Hooker, or Harrison Bailey, is an upgrade of any kind at the position over what the Vols have done the last four seasons. If not, it’ll be the last five years. But Milton’s physical tools and the high end of his small sample size – the first three performances against Minnesota, Michigan State, and Indiana last year, knowing he got hurt somewhere along the way – are an intriguing set of ingredients to throw in the bowl with Josh Heupel. It doesn’t have to be an All-SEC performance. But it’s possible we see something much closer to it.
It’s possible junior college transfers Tiyon Evans and Byron Young make immediate impacts. Evans was the #1 juco running back via 247 last year, Young the #1 weakside defensive end. These are Jeremy Pruitt pickups in the middle of last season’s free fall. And it appears both will have immediate opportunities to contribute.
It’s possible the transfer portal could speed up some of what comes with rebuilding. It’s unlikely the players the Vols brought in will match the statistical contributions of the guys they lost. But not only do you now have the opportunity to replace those guys – especially important if NCAA violations would’ve allowed exits more freely than entries – but you also might avoid some of what tends to happen in Year 1. When teams struggle around the middle of their season, upperclassmen who weren’t recruited by the new guy and can see either the NFL or the end of their career from here can sometimes check out. You’d certainly still like to have some of the talent the Vols lost, but perhaps the players who remain will stay invested longer, regardless of how the season goes.
It’s possible the offensive line won’t suffer additional significant injuries. K’Rojhn Calbert already rules this one out for the entire team, leaving the Vols perilously thin up front. But by all reports, the coaching staff feels good about their starting five. Can that starting five stay healthy? Tennessee has depth issues at a number of positions, but nowhere would a rash of injuries be more problematic than up front.
It’s possible the window of opportunity to enjoy this team is wider than usual. To be sure, this felt true last year too in the middle of a pandemic, when we were grateful to be playing at all. But expectations are lower, there’s the grace that comes with a first-year coach, and the fatigue of being a fan the last 13 years and life itself in these last 18 months would make us more grateful than ever to be surprised. Bowl eligibility is possible. So too is 7-5, which if it’s followed by a bowl victory, would leave Josh Heupel with the best year one of anyone who’s tried it during this rebuild. That’s the best news of all, felt around the nation this week, hoped for in Knoxville for a long time: progress is possible.