How did we get here? How did this happen? Are we really happy about this? Do I have a case of sports amnesia? Have we really fallen this far?
All these questions have been asked by many proud programs through the years.
Alabama fans had to ask these questions through the late-90’s and early 2000’s. Nebraska was in this same haze for nearly a decade. Oklahoma was there for over a decade. Michigan is going through it now.
The process of a proud program going from perennial top 10 to barely relevant is a painful one to say the least. It goes from shock, to denial, to reality, and finally to shame.
As a proud Vols fan for over 20 years I can give you the process or synthesis, if you will, from a fans perspective of watching your program decline.
As a longtime fan there are certain things that eventually get taken for granted. As a Vols fan through the 90’s these things were January bowl games, finishing near the top of the SEC east, being in the top 15 every year, and going into every game with a very good chance of winning it.
These facts become ingrained into a football fan’s psyche and results in high expectations. No proud program in America is immune from this process.
However, when that paradigm begins to shift, our expectations often stay the same.
While we realize that our favorite program is not what it used to be, we still get upset when we open the preseason magazine and see that our team is not ranked anywhere near the top 25.
We still have the mentality that a January bowl game is a given and that we have a shot at winning the conference because that’s just what we’re used to.
Then one day the cold, hard reality slaps you in the face and you realize that Peyton Manning is not our quarterback. That Tennessee has not finished a season in the top 10 since 2001. And that we no longer expect to beat Florida, Alabama, or Georgia (Although not many UT fans have ever expected to beat Florida in any given year).
Throughout the 90’s there was no doubt that we would beat Georgia.
There was no doubt that Alabama was going to pay for their 70’s and 80’s dominance over UT.
We knew that even though Kentucky and Vanderbilt might keep it close, there was no way they were going to defeat us. Back when the worst case scenario would be playing in the Citrus bowl, the most prestigious non-BCS /Bowl Alliance bowl game for an SEC team to play in.
It's Kentucky week 2009 and the headlines are “Tennessee is Going Bowling!” The very fact that the moniker, “Kentucky Week” is used is even a telling fact. Usually that classification is held for ‘Bama Week’ and ‘Florida Week’.
In the 90’s and the early part of this decade that wouldn’t even be considered a headline because that fact was locked up before November even began. All November meant was improving the bowl we played in, not actually making it to one.
It’s a reason that the seats were no longer full every time Neyland Stadium opened its gates.
It’s a reason teams like Georgia, South Carolina, and Kentucky began sneaking up on and overtaking Tennessee in the SEC East pecking order.
It’s a major reason one of the most successful coaches in the nation over the past decade-and-a-half was fired and a rookie was hired to rally the base and recruit his head off.
I know if the Vols beat Kentucky a January 1 bowl game is very likely. I realize that’s unbelievable considering what this team and program has been through over the past 24 months. But I just recently woke up to the fact that beating Kentucky is the prerequisite to achieving that dream.
It’s sort of like the Prodigal Son when he realized that he was sitting in slop with pigs and eating from their trough and went running back to his father whom he had walked out on to forge his own way.
It’s a stark realization that says, “Wow, I never realized things were this bad until now!”
Not to say that the future isn’t looking brighter now. Not to say that I don’t think Lane Kiffin has it in him to return the pride and national relevancy back to Tennessee.
I think things are better than they were, and I am hopeful they’re not yet as good as they’re going to be.
But one cannot deny that hoping to be 7-5 and worrying about Kentucky is never a good thing.
A good thing is that Tennessee still has a chance to finish second in the east. A good thing is that Tennessee will probably play in Florida, on New Year’s Day if they do finish second in the east.
A strange and bitter wake-up call is that Tennessee has to beat Kentucky, a team that hasn’t beaten Tennessee since 1984, to do so.