Here we are, a day from what might be a red-letter afternoon on Rocky Top, a moment that could end 11 straight years of heartache and heartbreak and total frustration against Florida.
Tennessee might – finally! – top the Gators on Saturday at Neyland Stadium in a matchup that will shape the SEC East race. The ghosts of a painful past for the Volunteers against their ghoul from Gainesville might be vanquished. The agony of a wretched run might be chased. The pressure of trying to become the first team since 2004 to wear the “T” and stomp the chomp might end.
And it won’t mean a damn thing if all that happens and the Vols choke later.
For Tennessee, this season always has been about more than beating Florida. This campaign is a study in if the Volunteers are worth trusting again. They’ll try to alter their recent image as a program big on potential but short on pop.
How many times has Tennessee teased us?
From the late years with Phillip Fulmer to the disastrous seasons with Lane Kiffin and Derek Dooley to the gradual gains under Butch Jones, the Vols have left us mostly wanting more. They have been the SEC East’s version of a Bentley with a busted transmission, parked at drab destinations such as the TaxSlayer and Outback bowls. They have been slick on the outside but flawed where it matters most.
Sure, beating Florida would mark a key development in achieving the larger goal of winning the SEC East. Despite an uneven start, Tennessee has the better talent in this matchup, and the Gators face questions at quarterback with Luke Del Rio out because of an MCL sprain sustained last Saturday against North Texas. Don’t forget that the Vols will benefit from playing before more than 102,000 crazed fans who would love to see quarterback Josh Dobbs slam a stake into a vampire that has tormented them for so long. It’s fair to expect Tennessee to win.
But what then?
Volunteers fans would be unwise to let the champagne flow too long if their Florida nightmare ends. Revenge can be sweet, and yes, a victory over the Gators would be worth celebrating from Memphis to Bristol. The day would be remembered for a long time.
Yet any party should come with perspective, because much more work remains to be done.
There’s an intriguing game on Oct. 1 at Georgia, where quarterback Jacob Eason’s star has begun to rise. There’s the wicked assignment on Oct. 8 at Texas A&M, which looks like a bona fide SEC West contender. There’s a scrap on Oct. 15 against Alabama, which appears as punishing as ever.
Tennessee’s schedule looks easier late, with dates against South Carolina, Tennessee Tech, Kentucky, Missouri and Vanderbilt to close. But tunnel vision will be needed to keep focused against inferior competition if the Vols hold a division lead at that point.
All this shows any exhilaration gained Saturday can be lost quickly. If Tennessee beats its orange-and-blue menace but loses at least two of its next three games, then the shine from the Florida victory will be gone and the Vols could find themselves in a fight to reach Atlanta. If Tennessee survives the toughest part of its schedule but stubs its toe near the finish line, then the old questions will return.
Why aren’t the Vols reaching their potential?
Why aren’t they able to do the job with all that skill?
Why aren’t they better?
So much of college football – and life outside the field – is about perception. We form assumptions about programs and individuals based on performance in moments that matter. From business between the hashes to life in the office to our existences at home, we all try to shape our respective images into a picture of how we want our peers, partners and superiors to view us. We control how we are perceived through our actions.
There’s a reason we view Nick Saban’s Alabama one way and Marv Levy’s Buffalo Bills another. There’s a reason we hold Bill Gates in high regard and the people behind the Lehman Brothers crash with disdain.
Saturday will be a reputation-defining moment for the Volunteers. But the game is only a piece of a larger picture that will come into focus in the following weeks. This is an SEC East-title-or-bust year in Knoxville, and a win over the Gators will seem fleeting if Tennessee finds itself at home again when the SEC Championship Game happens on Dec. 3.
For the Vols, their real season begins Saturday.
A victory over the Gators would satisfy everyone on Rocky Top. But if that happens, it will represent only a crucial first step in determining how this year is remembered.