It’s 3:50 p.m. on a Monday afternoon. Mondays are my busiest day of the week, even since the Independent Herald’s switch to an all-digital platform, and I should be working.
So why do I keep finding myself interrupted from work every few minutes to read the latest tweets and information about Tennessee football?
Because the Vols are back, baby!
Okay, I typed that last sentence in jest. Mostly.
We should pump the brakes on any talk about the Vols being “back.” We aren’t in position to compete with Georgia — and, obviously, we weren’t even in position to compete with Florida — in the SEC East. So we’re not going to be winning SEC championships anytime soon, which is what it will take for this storied program to truly be back.
But for the first time in a while, it feels like Tennessee football has turned a corner, and forgive us long-suffering UT fans if we want to revel in that just a little bit.
For Vols fans, “a while” is five years. Let’s not forget that it was just five years ago that Tennessee scored 31 unanswered points in a rout of Florida and defeated Georgia on a last-second Hail Mary by Josh Dobbs. But you’ll be forgiven if you have forgotten that spectacular start to the 2016 season, because Butch Jones’ success in Knoxville was, as it turned out, merely a flash in the pan.
As exhilarating as those wins over East rivals Florida and Georgia were at the time, we hadn’t even gotten to the end of that same 2016 season before Jones’ seat was beginning to feel a little heat. Tennessee lost three straight to Texas A&M, Alabama and South Carolina before an embarrassing end-of-season loss to Vanderbilt. Less than a year later, Jones had been unceremoniously shown the door and was on his way to Tuscaloosa to be Nick Saban’s coffee-fetcher.
Then came Schiano Sunday, the Phillip Fulmer coup, and the hire of Saban’s defensive coordinator, Jeremy Pruitt — which, all things considered (including the fact that Tennessee is currently under the cloud of a major NCAA investigation that is hamstringing recruiting efforts), might have been the worst football hire that Tennessee has made in more than half a century … at least.
Thankfully, we’re less than a year removed from Pruitt’s for-cause firing and the era of the Vols’ short-lived, cornbread-loving coach already seems like a distant memory.
That’s because former Heisman hopeful quarterback Josh Heupel is putting up big numbers with Tennessee’s offense. Scoring 62 points against a hapless Missouri team, followed by 42 points against a woeful South Carolina team, has Tennessee fans chomping at the bit to entertain Lane Kiffin on Saturday night.
Kiffin, who bolted for Southern Cal under the cover of darkness on a fateful January night back in 2010, will make his return to Neyland Stadium for the first time as a head coach since his one-year stint with the Vols. It’ll mark the first time any former Tennessee head coach has faced UT as head coach of another program since Doug Dickey rode into town with his Florida Gators on Oct. 24, 1970. First-year head coach Bill Battle and the 11th-ranked Vols won that game, 38-7.
A similar result isn’t expected on Saturday. Tennessee might well score 38 on Ole Miss. It might well score even more. Hendon Hooker has emerged as the SEC’s top-rated quarterback, statistically speaking, and the UT offense is humming. But the Vols’ thin defense is ill-equipped to limit the Rebels’ high-flying offense to seven points. Ole Miss features one of the few offenses in the country that is statistically better than Tennessee’s. The Rebels put up 52 points in a last-second win over Arkansas last week, and they’re ranked No. 13 in the country.
In fact, Tennessee opened as a 3.5-point underdog to Ole Miss. That means the Vols aren’t supposed to win the game.
But forgive UT fans for having the audacity to think that their team can send Lane Kiffin back to Oxford with his tail between his legs. Fans hate Kiffin even more than they hated Dickey in 1970. And they’d like nothing more than to hear him howl for mercy on a crisp October night on the banks of the Tennessee River.
That’s why 102,455 people will cram into Neyland Stadium, with a full-throated roar that’s likely to create a home field advantage Tennessee hasn’t experienced in several seasons. The game officially sold out on Monday, making it Neyland Stadium’s first sellout in more than four years.
On paper, most of the 102,455 are likely to leave disappointed. Tennessee’s wins over Mizzou and South Carolina, as thrilling as they were, are fool’s gold in a way because the Tigers and Gamecocks are two of the worst teams in the SEC. Only Vanderbilt, which lost to in-state FCS opponent ETSU to open the season, is worse. Against the only two offenses it has faced with a pulse, Tennessee’s defense was lit up, surrendering 41 points to Pittsburgh and 38 to Florida. On paper, Ole Miss should win.
But games aren’t played on paper. And if the Vols lose on Saturday, so be it. For now, though, it’s fun to actually dare to think that Tennessee might be on its way back. A fan base skeptical of first-year AD Danny White’s hire of Heupel has fully bought in after watching their team score 104 points in back-to-back SEC wins, and they’re frothing at the mouth not just to get back at the former coach who spurned them, but for Heupel to earn a signature win that proves to prospective recruits that Tennessee is back to SEC relevancy. A win over the Rebels on Saturday would kill both birds with a single stone. And for a fan base that has had precious little to celebrate for the past 14 years, that’s fun to think about.
ν Ben Garrett is Independent Herald editor. Contact him at email@example.com.