I'm not exactly sure what it is about Penn State, but they showed Monday - 13 years since we last met, but for the third consecutive meeting - that they play a brand of football that Tennessee struggles with. In the wake of the 20-10 Outback Bowl loss and the close of the 2006 season, some intro/retrospection...
First, you continue to see elements of oversaturation - which isn't a word I ever thought I'd use about football and especially the Vols, since this blog is a great example of it in the first place - but in reading Tuesday's Knoxville News-Sentinel, where you'll need almost three hands to count the number of articles about the game, it seems like people - both journalists and fans alike - are making things more complicated than they are. It's not that I don't enjoy reading a dozen articles about the Outback Bowl the morning after, but sometimes you don't have to dig any deeper than a backbreaking long fumble returned for a touchdown with ten minutes left. Yes, Penn State ran the ball straight at us with success, the same way that Arkansas and LSU did. Yes, Bret Smith's absence hurt. But the Vols lost, more than anything else, because of Arian Foster's fumble. Nothing about it that Foster should wear the expression he had on his face after it happened for too much longer, and he can still be a good back here in the future, but that's what it comes down to.
When I read that Tennessee was/is "overrated", or that the Vols weren't ready to play, or that things aren't much different than 2005, I struggle. I'll be the first to admit that I lean on the optimistic side of the fence by trade, but in trying to stay in the realistic realm, I don't think you can really go with any of those statements for the 2006 story, even though the bowl game tends to flavor the entire season. If Foster doesn't fumble and the Vols win ugly 13-10, those stories are about how Tennessee is gritty and found a way to win against an opponent whose only regular season losses were to BCS teams and Wisconsin. But he did, and such is life.
In trying to look beyond the Outback Bowl while still including it in the rhythm of the story for the entire season, you find a mixture of emotions. The California win, in that moment, was something special (and will find its place on the revised Top 50 games list along with a couple others from 2006 later this week). But the balance of the entire season felt like it was in jeopardy a couple of times. If Air Force gets a two point conversion, these are all entirely different conversations. But if the Vols get a first down instead of an intentional grounding penalty the next week, then they're different conversations too.
Remember the feeling when Georgia was ahead 24-7? Remember the way you felt a few hours later? Things. Change. Quickly.
A popular optimistic thought process in 2005 was "if we don't make two special teams mistakes at Florida, if we don't let Georgia run a punt back for a touchdown, if we don't fumble into the end zone against Bama and Spurrier, if we don't throw that late interception against Vanderbilt..." and you get the idea.
The reality is, even though we're in two completely different places and people who use phrases like "nothing's changed from 2005" should have a Coke and a smile, there's a fine line between this year and last year.
In the present day of college football, nothing is free and everything counts. When we use phrases like "yeah, but we're Tennessee", that means we're talented enough on paper to beat anyone we play. That part's still true. But reality is, so is everyone else. Not only is every game more important than ever before, but every play is. There are fewer and fewer teams you can get behind 21 points to and then simply out-talent or outcoach to victory in the fourth quarter. You need to be lucky and you need to be good.
What Tennessee did in 2006 was reaffirm that they're going to be in the conversation and they're going to be a factor. The day of the truly dominant, year-in year-out program is gone; the last two "dynasties" in college football played in the Pac-10 and the Big East. So the goal is less to become this giant, dominant force in the SEC and the nation, because that's simply unrealistic. The goal is to keep yourself in position to win, and then do it. The Vols' 2006 season proved that they'll be in that position in August 2007 (though that position would certainly be helped if Robert Meachem decides to stick around).
It will be no different next year. In 2007, the Vols will face a schedule full of opponents capable of trading blows with them, and while they do replace LSU with Mississippi State on the SEC slate, they'll play their toughest competition away from Neyland Stadium. Preseason polls are nice and good material for the newspapers and this blog, but Tennessee can answer all and none of the questions with their on-field performance alone. What's success around here these days? On the one hand, you won a huge game in your season opener, had a memorable comeback victory on the road against a team that had beaten you five of six, beat Alabama and beat Spurrier. On the other hand, you lost to Florida, got your quarterback hurt which helped cost you the LSU game, got run over by Arkansas and then lost the bowl game by ten points to leave a bad taste in your mouth by losing to everyone except Kentucky and Vanderbilt at the end.
If I had to choose some words to try and capture it, I'd say we had a good season with a bad aftertaste. But it's not one that won't go down quickly. The focus is immediately 2007.
It starts with Robert Meachem and carries through recruiting, spring ball and summer workouts. This Vol team knows how to work hard, because they learned it last offseason. Now it'll be remembering that makes the difference.
So as we close the book on a reaffirming, interesting and enjoyable 2006, we turn the page to 2007. Here's a very rough look at what's lining up for the Vols:
QB - Erik Ainge
RB - Arian Foster/Montario Hardesty/LaMarcus Coker
FB - David Holbert
WR - Robert Meachem (pretty please?)/Lucas Taylor/Austin Rogers/Josh Briscoe/Quentin Hancock/a freshman to be named later
TE - Chris Brown/Brad Cottam
OT - Eric Young/Steven Jones/Chris Scott/freshman or position change
OG - Jacques McClendon/Ramon Foster/Anthony Parker/Vladimir Richard
C - Josh McNeil
DE - Antonio Reynolds/Xavier Mitchell
DT - Demonte Bolden/JT Mapu (need depth here badly)
LB - Jerod Mayo/Ryan Karl/Rico McCoy (who plays in the middle?)
DB - Jonathan Hefney/Demetrice Morley/Roshaun Fellows (back from medical redshirt)/Antonio Gaines/Antonio Wardlow (what's the breakdown here?)
K - Daniel Lincoln/Chad Cunningham (both redshirted)/true freshman?
P - Britton Colquitt
These guys will be playing against this:
Sep 01 - at California
Sep 08 - vs Southern Miss
Sep 15 - at Florida
Sep 22 - vs Northern Illinois
Sep 29 - vs Central Florida
Oct 06 - vs Georgia
Oct 13 - at Mississippi State
Oct 20 - at Alabama
Oct 27 - vs South Carolina
Nov 03 - bye week
Nov 10 - vs Arkansas
Nov 17 - vs Vanderbilt
Nov 24 - at Kentucky
Is it August yet?