One of my friends was talking a few weeks ago about going to Lexington for the Tennessee-Kentucky game this year. And I've been weighing my options about joining him - Lexington is an easy trip from Knoxville, I've been there three times before. And I was also thinking about how it can sometimes carry that special extra weight, being that Kentucky hasn't beaten Tennessee in 23 years, and that if Andre Woodson and company get some upsets, it could actually become an important game.
And then I always have to remember that I can't say the same thing about Vanderbilt anymore - until 2005, I had never seen the Vols lose to either UK or Vandy (I was 1 when Vanderbilt won in 1982 and 3 when Kentucky did it in 1984). And it always seemed like something that would never happen, until 2005. And even that one is fuzzy for me - that day, I was at a church event (in Nashville, ironically) and so because I wasn't there when it happened and didn't see any of it on TV, it doesn't seem real to me, and so I always have to remember that yes, Vanderbilt did beat us, and no, we don't have a two-decade-plus streak on them anymore. But Kentucky's is still there. And I can say that I've never seen the Vols lose to them.
So all this got me thinking about what else I've never seen. And while I do remember how much fun it used to be to say "Memphis State's never beaten Tennessee and never will" until 1996, I started thinking about not the negative, but the positive - what have I never seen that I'd love to see more than anything else?
We're hovering in the realistic here, believe it or not. The fact that the Vols won a National Championship nine years ago opens up the top spot for lots of options. And in trying to think of things that I've never seen or that have never happened - which eliminates things like "The Celtics become relevant" - it was harder to come up with ten than I thought it would be. But alas, I persevere, and so for this Saturday - five weeks from kickoff, though these aren't all college football related - here are 10 things I've never seen in sports that I'd most want to see:
10. A Tennessee player wins the Heisman Trophy
As we approach the 10th anniversary of "From Michigan...Charles Woodson!" and the simultaneous birth of the "QB hurry" and "passes defended" statistics, I realize it's blasphemy for many Vol fans to include this on the list, which is why it's at the bottom. But I really tried to come up with something else that I'd like to see more after the first nine, but nothing seemed genuine.
At the very least, if the Vols developed a genuine Heisman candidate, it would be interesting. For whatever reason, Travis Stephens didn't fully become one in 2001, but he definitely should've been. And the Vols have had a few preseason hype machines since Peyton Manning finished second in 1997: Jamal Lewis in 1999, and Kelley "The Future" Washington in 2002. But a genuine, into-November candidate - whether it was Erik Ainge this year or another Vol somewhere down the road - would, even if it's 50 years from now, stir up the old emotions from 1997. One of these days, I'll dig up the article I wrote for my high school newspaper when Woodson won, because I still can't say it any better today. But this post isn't about why Woodson won - it's about what would happen if another Vol made it to New York, and whether or not you'd want to see them win.
Now...would it be awesome if Erik Ainge had a monster season, the Vols went undefeated, and then Ainge got invited to New York and said "No thanks" in honor of Peyton? Yes. Is that going to happen? No. Would that be what's best for Tennessee's program and image? Probably not. So if we're dealing with the real...you can bet that if Michigan fans held up signs that said "Woodson: Better then, better now." in January 2002 at the Citrus Bowl, it would still come up today. The wounds are still real. And I would like to see that sign today.
And regardless of any of that bad feelings or the quotes or whatever would happen if a Vol made it to the final cut, if the award fell into Big Orange hands - which has never happened, with Johnny Majors getting screwed and Heath Shuler having the misfortune of playing the same year as Charlie Ward - how would you feel?
And no matter how you'd answer that question right now, ultimately the answer is going to be that you'd feel good. Ultimately, it would be a good thing if a player from the University of Tennessee won the Heisman Trophy - and yes, it's ridiculous that I even have to make that statement. What happened in 1997 was very real and is like the loss that's never grieved; it'll take a legitimate Heisman candidate in orange, deep into the season, to bring up those wounds and make the Vols deal with them. Even when the Colts won the Super Bowl, my first thoughts were of the Heisman Trophy and its proclaimed irrelevancy for all in orange. But whether or not it's relevant, and no matter how long you wear your "And you can keep your stupid trophy" t-shirt...it would be good. And, before I die, I'd like to see one come to Knoxville. And so would you, even if you won't admit it.
09. The Cubs win the World Series
As a Braves fan, of course I want Atlanta to win it every single year. But I have a small hole in my heart for the Cubbies - one of my best friends in life, who died a few years ago, was a huge Cubs fan. And so I still track them in the standings every morning and pull for them as long as they're not playing Atlanta. And one of these days, I'd still like to see it happen like 99% of America.
In case you forgot, the Cubs last won a World Series in 1908, and last played in the World Series in 1945. They live a different breed of heartbreak than the Red Sox did, who kept making it and coming up short until 2004. And it should also be mentioned that if Steve Bartman and Grady Little did what they should've done, Jesus would've already come back, because there's no way a Cubs/Red Sox World Series in 2003 would've ended in anything other than armageddon.
One of these days, one of these years - maybe this one, who knows - the Cubs are going to get there. And when they do, one of these years they're going to win it. And when they do - hopefully not by beating the Braves in the NLCS along the way - me and the rest of America will smile.
08. Tiger Woods & Phil Mickelson playing together in the final pairing, atop the leaderboard on Sunday at a major
The window on this one won't last forever. And I'm not talking about Phil playing with Tiger when Tiger is six shots up on the field. I'm talking about the mythical showdown, where they go to Sunday in first and second at a major, separated by no more than two strokes. And if it comes down to 18, all the better.
The only thing Tiger is missing is a rival. Which isn't necessary - Michael Jordan is the "most now" athlete of all time, and he was never equaled in his time. But it would be fun. Because, as Rick Reilly wrote a few years ago, you can't like both of these guys. If it came down to them on Sunday, you'd find America choosing sides. I know right now it seems like you can pull for them both, but trust me, as the holes wore on down the stretch on Sunday, you'd find out who you really pulled for.
It wouldn't even matter who won - they've both won majors, their legacies are certainly safe. But just for once, I want to see Tiger square off with someone - and right now Phil is the best and only choice - on Sunday and have it be competitive. The story is always Woods' greatness, which is tremendous - but I want to see him go shot for shot with a rival on Sunday when it counts. And the ratings would never be the same.
07. A Tennessee basketball home-and-home series with Duke
The list of legendary arenas in college basketball starts and ends with Cameron Indoor. Maybe you could include Rupp Arena, but the Vols see that place every year. And the list of teams that you'd love to see at Thompson-Boling Arena is short too - dynasties in college basketball are a rare thing, and if it wasn't Duke you were clamoring for, it's probably North Carolina. Those are really the only two names that would make even the semi-casual basketball fan want to get a ticket in Knoxville, as the Vols already play Kentucky and Florida. But Duke carries a much, much greater appeal than Carolina for one reason: Cameron. Can you name North Carolina's arena off the top of your head? I'm sure Dean Smith's name is in there somewhere, but you see the point.
The scary part about this one is that it could be close to reality. The Lady Vols have built a strong exisiting relationship with Duke in a game, especially in the new absence of the Tennessee-UConn series (a great tragedy in my opinion), that has become one of the biggest in women's college basketball. Bruce Pearl is a smart man, who is only equaled by Mike Hamilton in terms of knowing what's best from a marketing and business standpoint.
A series like this was impossible three years ago. But now, if Pearl and the Vols keep this up, then Tennessee will become a team that gets in that elite group of 15-20 teams that seem to always play each other in the non-conference portion of the schedule. And I don't want Duke in the Preseason NIT or something like that. I want them to come to Knoxville, and then I want to try and get the hardest ticket of my life at Cameron. There's not a name in college basketball that you'd rather see Bruce Pearl's Vols face.
06. Tennessee vs. Virginia Tech in football
In fairness, this has happened - the 1994 Gator Bowl, which the Vols won by three touchdowns when Peyton Manning was a freshman. But it wasn't nearly as meaningful as it would be today - back then the Vols were at the tail end of a four-loss season, and Virginia Tech wasn't Virginia Tech yet. Since the days of Michael "He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named" Vick, VT has become, and more importantly, maintained its status as a national powerhouse.
I live less than an hour from Blacksburg, in, as I'm often reminded, "the heart of Hokie country". And you can see why - there's not a professional team in sight, the closest being in other states (Charlotte) or in DC. There's not a lot of nightlife in these parts...on fall Saturdays, there's nothing to distract you from Hokie Football. The head coach, Frank Beamer, is one of their own, from the mountains of Southwest Virginia. And now the product they love so much has become, Vick Family aside, something to be very proud of. And something that can bite as well as it barks.
But living here for more than a year, with my allegiance and loyalty to the Vols on constant display, you can still sense a fear; it's not as tangible as I'm guessing it once was, but it's a fear that, should Virginia Tech ever go back to being an average program, the fringe Hokie fans will turn their attention, affection and dollars towards Knoxville, and a Tennessee program that's presumed to be always good. That Virginia Tech is still one step on the outside looking in - though a win at LSU on September 8 would change all of that.
They've talked Bristol for years. Virginia Tech fans say the Vols are scared. Doug Dickey always said he'd never give up a home game for something like that (six figure crowd, eight figure dollars). They've talked a home-and-home, but the Vols will be less apt to come to Blacksburg and her small house (though the new addition helps). And nothing ever happens - and the Vols scheduled an SEC-ACC series with NC State instead.
It can be a bowl game. Preferably, of course, it's a BCS bowl - and while it's probably bad for my personal job security if it was for the National Championship, and nobody wants to be on the other side of that story playing Virginia Tech for the title this year - the Orange Bowl or Sugar Bowl would do just fine. But it can even be the Chick-fil-A Bowl, which was flirted with last year before the Vols landed in Tampa. But sooner or later, the Vols and the Hokies need to go to war with each other. And if they ever do, Tennessee fans, coaches and players had better respect, and respect quickly, how badly the Hokies would want to beat the Vols. And then, of course, the Vols would have to win, because I'd never live that down.
05. Tennessee vs. Texas in football
The Horns are the only team left standing on my personal hate list in college football. The Vols crossed Michigan off that list in the Citrus Bowl '02, and while I'd love to see the Vols get another shot at Nebraska (coming home-and-home next decade) and Penn State, nothing good has happened so far against those teams, and they have more of my respect and less of my wrath.
But Texas stands alone, thanks to a combination of Chris Simms and that "the real UT" nonsense. Let me ask you a question: right now, if someone told you the Vols were going to play in the BCS National Championship Game in January, and you could pick the opponent, who's the first team you'd want to see the Vols face? Exactly.
Tennessee took care of them in basketball twice in two years, but that's not enough. What's more, this seems to be the most logical opponent for Tennessee to schedule a home-and-home football series with, but it hasn't happened yet. Tennessee is contracted with Oklahoma and Nebraska in the next decade, but still no Texas.
When realistically looking at making future schedules, the list of teams you really want to face is relatively small. There's always the Big 10-Big Stadium triumvirate of Michigan-Ohio State-Penn State, but the reality is the Vols always have a good shot of playing one of them in the BCS, Capital One or Outback Bowl, so you're not going to see Tennessee schedule a Big 10 opponent in the regular season (last time that happened: not counting playing Iowa in the 1987 Kickoff Classic - remember those? - Penn State, 1971-72). Outside of scheduling Virginia Tech for reasons outlined above, the only other "let's go out and do this at all costs" opponent that's out there is Texas. The Vols have done Miami and beat Florida State for the National Championship, won't schedule a Big 10 opponent, have Nebraska/Oklahoma coming down the pipe, should always continue their relationships with UCLA on the West Coast (coming next year) and Notre Dame...Texas is the only one left. And Texas is at the top of the list.
Still, I'd say VT is more likely to actually happen. And something makes me doubt that you'd better hope for a bowl game if you ever want to really see them.
04. The Braves beat the Yankees or Red Sox to win the World Series
Atlanta has been involved in some memorable World Series moments - the epic 91 affair with Minnesota, the victory over Cleveland in 95, Andruw Jones' breakout and Atlanta's subsequent collapse against the Yankees in 96. And Cleveland was a big deal when the 95 World Series unfolded, where both cities desperately needed that ring.
And of course today, if the Braves beat the D-Rays to win the title, I'd still be happy. But as someone, maybe Bill Simmons, said about the Red Sox in 04...there's lots of chances to win the World Series. But you don't always get a chance to take out the Yankees along the way.
I group the Sox and Yanks together, because facing - and beating, which is the key word - either of them would be money, both for the Braves and for the television rights. Atlanta is still a big TV draw (as I watch them play Arizona on Fox Saturday Baseball as we speak), and you could argue that after the Cubs, they're going to be the best National League TV draw in a World Series. Meanwhile, network executives pray to the television gods every year for a Red Sox-Yankees ALCS, because the ratings will simply get no higher.
So in my best baseball fantasy, I'll take the Braves in the World Series against the winner of said Yanks/Sox ALCS. Preferably, it'd be the Yankees - because we all hate the Yankees. But either way, that's a memorable, money World Series, and it would be that much sweeter to get the ring that way.
03. Titans win the Super Bowl
We've been here before. The Super Bowl is unquestionably the biggest sporting event in the American world, so having your favorite team win it would give you a moment that would last forever. And in the ultra-competitive roller coaster of the NFL, you get windows that open and close rapidly.
After giving my young heart to the Tennessee Oilers when the Cowboys had broken it with a combination of strippers, guns, cocaine and Jerry Jones, I was rewarded in 1999 with a magical ride of cool uniforms, Steve McNair and Eddie George, the Music City Miracle, a win over Peyton in the divisional round, and a very satisfying triumph over Jacksonville in the AFC Championship Game. In the Super Bowl against the St. Louis Rams, as it came down to the final drive, I felt a strange emotion - when the Vols are down to their last drive, I have this blind "we're going to do it!" confidence that bleeds through on this blog. But for the Titans, there was no such feeling present, and so every play I was scared to death. And if you go back and watch the tape, McNair made some incredible plays to the very end, when yes, the Titans came up one. yard. short.
(For the record, I also hate Kurt Warner. People used to come up to me all the time and say "wow, isn't Kurt Warner a great Christian example?" And I say no, he's not. As soon as the Rams won and they handed him the microphone, he said something like "First and foremost, I'd like to thank my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ for giving us the victory!" And I don't know much, but I can assure you that he wasn't praying to the same God as me. Because my God certainly couldn't ordain coming up a yard short. Of this I am sure.)
The Titans had a couple more shots - losing with their best team to the Ravens in the divisionals the following year in a heartbreaking game, losing at New England and at Oakland in subsequent years in the playoffs. It's been four years since they've had serious title thoughts. But when you picture Vince Young, maybe not right away, but you start thinking about him holding up that Lombardi Trophy one day...
As stated, it's the Super Bowl. So I want my team to get it done. And then, much more than I fondly remember blindly cheering for the Cowboys as a kid, I'll always have something to say "That one. That Super Bowl. That year. That title."
02. Tennessee Basketball wins the SEC Tournament/makes the Final Four
Since we're going for realism, I won't write "wins the National Championship" up there. Yet. One thing at a time. But I'm grouping both of these together under the "postseason success" banner. And we'll only have to wait about eight months for both of these, right?
The SEC Tournament has rapidly become one of my favorite events in sports. But it's also cost me lots of heartbreak and about $500.00 over the last two years. But it's so unique, with fans from all 12 teams coming out and the promise of four days of good basketball, and it is, on all levels, the greatest risk/reward sporting event to personally attend that I know of.
And Tennessee plays terrible in the SEC Tournament, historically speaking. But should the Vols ever breakthrough to Saturday, and then actually make it to Sunday, and then win it...it will be awesome.
From there, it goes to March Madness, where now it's no longer instant-success to make it to the Sweet 16. I would argue that even making the Elite Eight will no longer be instant-success. And my thoughts on the Vols' chances this year - which really, really are too close to being factual to call them delusions - will come out as we get closer to winter. But either way, the Final Four is uncharted territory. And it's the next step, as Bruce Pearl would say. Is it really so hard to believe that of everything on this list, this one is the most probable?
01. Tennessee vs. Alabama in the SEC Championship Game
This one's so far at the top, it's not even close.
It's been 15 years since they created the East and West Divisions in the SEC and created the first Championship Game. And when they did, it seemed logical for everyone to think that the two most storied programs in the SEC would now get another chance to play each other, with the stakes higher than ever.
It's been 15 years. And it still hasn't happened.
Sometimes it's been our fault - in those 15 years, the one it should've happened in the most was the first one, where the Vols blew a two game SEC East lead in 1992 by losing three straight by a combined ten points. Florida got in the way from there, meeting Alabama for the title in 92 as well as 93, 94, and 96. And sometimes it's been their fault - really, the four years that Tennessee has made it - 97, 98, 01, 04 - Alabama really hasn't been on the radar. Alabama hasn't been in Atlanta since 1999, but that's another year where the Vols were a toss sweep against Florida away from facing them, and dropped the ball.
I've written on here multiple times about the SEC Championship Game being the best sporting environment I've ever been in - I've been to all four the Vols played in, and especially the 97 contest between the Vols and Auburn with a 50/50 split crowd and everything on the line, you just can't touch the atmosphere. And if it was ever the Vols and the Tide - bonus points, of course, if both were in the hunt for the national title - that's the only thing that could top what I've already seen. It would be the greatest Tennessee-Alabama game in history going in, and that's saying something.
The beauty of it in today's SEC is that who knows? Were you picking Arkansas this time last year? True Tennessee fans want Alabama to be good. True Tennessee fans cheer for the Tide for all four weeks in September and the first two in October. You can hate Florida and Georgia and hope they get beat every week - which is fine, cause they're in our division and we could always use the help. But for the Third Saturday to be the Third Saturday, you need both teams at elite status. And if you want the best SEC Championship Game possible, it's simple: you need Tennessee, and you need Alabama. And I don't think fans of either team fully realize how truly great that situation would be until they stop and think about it. So you think about it. Especially if you've been down to Atlanta for one of those games before, think about it. And believe it - there's nothing - nothing - I'd rather see than the Vols and our best rival playing in Atlanta for the SEC Championship.
And one of these days, it's actually going to happen.