Football time: Hoping for magic as a new season begins
Stop. Take a deep breath. Enjoy this moment, because it almost certainly won’t last.
As of right now, the University of Tennessee Volunteers are undefeated. They have yet to be scored upon. They have yet to even draw a penalty.
Of course, they’ve only played one game, but that’s a pretty unbelievable feeling, isn’t it? And one that’s a long time coming. Vols fans are long-suffering people, and over the past several years, Derek Dooley’s orange pants were about the only bright spot on the football field. But last Saturday night, man ... that was some glorious football.
Of course, once the second and third strings took the field in the second half, things seemed to ground to a halt. And Austin Peay, valiant though the Governors fought, barely qualifies as an actual opponent. Things will get a good deal more difficult this weekend, and new coach Butch Jones will be put to his first real test on the Vols sideline.
But right now ... right now, it seems anything is possible.
I’ve read numerous predictions regarding our chances this season from people much more qualified to make them than me. Most prognosticators, it seems, think we’ll go 6 and 6 and end up in a fourth-tier bowl game that won’t whet our appetites for greatness but will make us hungry for what happens next year, and the year after that. Some surmise we might go 5-7, while more optimistic pigskin analysts think we might manage an upset or two and finish 7-5.
No one, not even the most rabid Vols fan, thinks we’ll wind up in the National Championship game. There’s no rational explanation for why we would, and too many factors against us going there: A brand new coach, a program in the rebuilding stages, unknown talent, a team that has heart but not the experience.
But at this very moment, anything is possible. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned as a lifelong fan of the Tennessee Volunteers, it’s that we love to cross our fingers behind our backs and wish with all of our collective might that we do the unthinkable. We try to face reality and not get our hopes up, especially going into the brutal month of October, but we can’t help ourselves.
Saturday night, my folks came over, as did my brother and his wife, and we grilled burgers and drank sweet tea and watched the game as a family. It’s a tradition we try to maintain at least once every season, and both my brother and I get our love of Tennessee football from Dad. We never attended the University of Tennessee, but he did — class of 1968 — and as far back as I can remember, Saturdays in the fall were a time for us to keep quiet and out of the way.
If the team played on TV, he paced the red shag carpet of the den and screamed at the screen. If it wasn’t televised, John Ward’s familiar voice rang throughout the household, followed intermittently by my father’s curses whenever the Vols fumbled or threw an interception or allowed too many yards to the opposing team. He’s by no means unique in his devotion, and like so many fathers who so fervently follow the team and its trials and tribulations every autumn, he didn’t have to work hard to ensure his sons developed their own passion for the Big Orange.
Speaking for myself, it’s always been there. I may not have gone to UT, but I grew up in the shadow of Neyland Stadium. The undeniable buzz that starts building in late summer becomes a full-throated roar by the first weekend of September, and the entire town is awash in orange long before the fall colors decorate the trees of the nearby mountains. Without a doubt, this is a football town, peopled by fans every bit as ardent as my father ... which makes it so heartbreaking when the team stumbles and falls.
It’s one thing to lose to a superior opponent; it’s another entirely to have victory snatched from your grasp because of poor judgment, costly mistakes and an inability to get the job done. I suspect every team has their moments of such ineptitude, but over the past several seasons, the Vols have seemed to possess it in abundance, so much so that a collective gray cloud of depression seems to roll off the Smokies and settle over the valley by the first of November.
We loved Dooley, and he gave us hope after He Who Shall Not Be Named stole out of town like a thief in the night. But he couldn’t give us what we needed, and now we’ve taken up with this new guy, this Butch Jones fella. He looks like a Marine drill sergeant, and judging by his on-field intensity, he comes across as one as well when a player incurs his wrath. Perhaps he’ll take us to the Promised Land after all? Only time will tell.
How this season will go is up to the Football Gods. Realistically, we’ll take a pounding from several conference opponents, be OK if we break even and consider it a job well done if we make it to a bowl game. As a Vol fan, I don’t think that’s good enough, but what do I know? I’m an armchair quarterback, a backseat driver in the worst sense of the word. I never even went to UT, unlike my dad, so I can’t complain that my tuition gives me some sort of financial stake in the team’s success.
But I do live here in East Tennessee, and the boys in orange and white represent me as a Tennessean. It’s just football; I realize this. But when you grow up thinking that men like Johnny Majors and Phil Fulmer are on a par with men like Davy Crockett and Sgt. Alvin York, it becomes more than “just” a game. It becomes a way of life, and everything revolves around it.
Steve Wildsmith is the Weekend editor for The Daily Times. Contact him at (firstname.lastname@example.org) or at 981-1144.