I personally cannot remember a season that featured more ups and downs than the one that the Tennessee Vols and coach Lane Kiffin just completed.
Some might say '01 compared slightly. That's partially true. From the heartbreak of the last minute loss to Georgia to the ecstasy of defeating Florida in the swamp back down to the depths of despair in losing to LSU in the SEC title game.
As rough a ride as that season was, I have to say that this one has been even more-so. I think having a rookie head coach take over for a living legend has as much to do with that as anything.
The '09 season brought with it anticipation like Vols fans had not seen in nearly a decade. There were other seasons that Tennessee was ranked highly and hyped even higher, but even those pale in comparison to the "Lane Train's" inaugural ride around the SEC.
Many of us knew coming in to this season that the coaching change was not about this season. '09 was to be just the first step in a hopeful championship odyssey.
With eight games at home, I felt that the Vols would finish 8-4. Seven wins would be acceptible and should be considered a step in the right direction.
The Vols finished with seven wins and looked better through much of that process.
And a process it was.
Vols fans were giddy with the season opening win over Western Kentucky. Forget that Western Kentucky is in it's first official season in the FBS. Forget that many of their players would not make it on most FBS rosters.
Scoring 63 points in their first game after last season's miserable offensive showing was something to be proud of.
That was true until UCLA came to Knoxville. "It's time for revenge" I wrote. UCLA never should have won the Labor Day matchup in '08—this time the Lane Train was going to get them. Wrong. The Vols lost 19-15 and Jonathan Crompton looked every bit like the Jonathan Crompton of '08.
Score one for the Up's and one for the Down's.
The next week was the annual grudge match with Florida. This time it was supposed to be a complete and utter dismantling of all that Lane Kiffin and the Vols had worked for. Wrong.
Tennessee kept it close for much of the game and brought it to within 10 in the final minutes. Tim Tebow and Urban Meyer didn't get their wish of putting up 60. I was pleased with the moral victory when compared to the loss to UCLA the week before.
I consider this one a half-point each for team Up and team Down. That's 1.5 to 1.5.
Ohio payed a visit to Neyland stadium the following week and the Vols looked pretty much atrocious throughout the game. There were issues on special teams and the offense struggled to get going all night long. But a win is a win.
Another half-point each for Up and Down.
Auburn came next. The game started quite positively for Tennessee when Nu'Keese Richardson took off on the first play of the game for a 40-yard run out of the Nu'Gun package (A package that wouldn't rear it's ugly head until a few weeks later at a Knoxville gas station).
The Vols would eventually miss a field goal on that drive, the first of many future problems with the kicking game, and Auburn took off.
Crompton again looked terrible in that first half. However, once he was utilized in the hurry up offense late in the third quarter, Crompton actually started to look like a quarterback.
Auburn won 26-22 in a score that was actually closer than the game really was.
Score one for the Down's and a half-point for the Up's based on the Vols fourth quarter performance. Down's lead 3-2.5.
The hated Georgia Bulldogs came to town the following week. The game featured a couple of the up's and down's in the first half as Tennessee allowed a kickoff return. That was all erased, however, when Jonathan Crompton playaction passed his way to Lane Kiffin's first SEC win. Tennessee won 45-19 and Vols fans were giddy again.
Score 1.5 for the Up's. Up's lead 4-3 after five games.
Then came the annual Alabama rivalry. The Tide was ranked No. 1 at the time and Tennessee was a 17-point underdog.
Tennessee held the Tide out of the endzone all day. The Vols would force a late fumble, the first in Mark Ingram's career, and would drive for a last minute touchdown to make the score 12-10.
Then the Vols got the onside kick. Jonathan Crompton would put the Vols into position for the gamewinning field goal with three seconds remaining. A 44-yard attempt was all the seperated the Vols and instant respect for their new coach and the program. Unfortunately Terrance Cody had other plans.
The blocked field goal took this from a definite Up to a resounding Down.
5-4 Down's take the lead.
Sitting at 3-4 after losing to the No. 1 team in the country on a blocked field goal the Vols could have packed it in. With No. 24 South Carolina coming, however, they found more resolve than we fans could have imagined.
Tennessee forced three first half turnovers en route to a 31-13 blowout. The worst beating a Steve Spurrier-coached team had received at the hands of the Vols.
Score two for the Up's. 6-5 Up's lead.
The next week was homecoming versus Memphis. The game was over by halftime. Tennessee won 56-28. Score another for the Up's, 7-5.
At this exact point many, including myself, declared the Vols the hottest team in the SEC. Florida and Alabama were scraping by their opponents. Tennessee had just beaten two respected SEC opponents by a combined 44 points and played No. 1 'Bama to within it's final breath.
Next came the biggest down of the season. Nu'Keese Richardson and Mike Edwards decided to create their own "Nu'gun" experience by holding up three men in a gas station parking lot in Knoxville with a pellet gun.
Janzen Jackson was there, but was apparently oblivious to the attempted armed robbery as he was inside the store at the time.
All three were charged and booked for a night in jail. The charges against Jackson were later dropped, but the other two were kicked off the team.
Score a two-spot for the Down's. 7-7.
Of course that incident happened roughly 50 hours prior to a visit to Ole Miss. The Vols got McClustered to death in Oxford. The team wasn't even close to ready and the issue just days before clearly had it's effect in the 42-17 beatdown.
Two more point for the Down's.
Thankfully time heals most wounds—even the incredibly stupid one's. Vanderbilt came to town and did their annual job of padding the Vols stats and win column.
Perhaps the most memorable moment of the season came as the game was winding down. Senior DE Wes Brown intercepted a Vanderbilt pass and rumbled into the endzone on his two weak and hobbled knees for his first and only collegiate touchdown.
Score two for the Up's not only because of the win, but the added bonus that the win brought bowl eligibility. 8-8 tie.
Which brings us to Thanksgiving weekend.
Kentucky, fresh off it's first win over the 'Dawgs in Athens in over 30 years, was primed and ready to stop the Vols 24-year win streak over the Big Blue. The rabid fans and the team was hyped and ready to go.
The Vols survived the first half and dominated the second half. Still as the Vols were trying to salt away the clock, TE Luke Stocker fumbled in Kentucky territory to set up the gametying, overtime forcing field goal.
Tennessee's defense would not be denied and forced a missed field goal on Kentucky's first OT possession. Tennessee would score a touchdown six plays later to continue the streak and improve the Vols final record to 7-5.
Score two big one's for the Up's.
The Up's have it 10-8 for '09.
When changing coaches and forging a new identity for a program having more up's than down's, or more wins than losses, is never a bad thing. If you don't believe me just talk to a Michigan fan for about five minutes. Your opinion will change.
'09 was supposed to be the first step, the foundation, of a building process. After 12 games I'd say mission accomplished.
Still, a 13th game remains. Where it will be played and against whom is anyone's guess at this point. The Outback Bowl vs. Wisconsin or Northwestern; the Cotton Bowl vs. Oklahoma State; and the Chick-Fil-A Bowl vs. Virginia Tech are all very real possibilities.
No matter who the final opponent or where the final venue of '09 is the first step will still be complete and it will still be considered a success.