Ladies and gentlemen, your SEC East Division leaders.
Outscored 145-68 in three losses. Outgained 1535-1042 in those same games. Sporting a 5-3 record with a coach with one foot in the frying pan and one foot in Atlanta. Ranked a pedestrian 24th in the AP poll. And a fanbase that can't wait to talk basketball.
Not only that, but a team that found a way to capitalize on every mistake in the first half last night against South Carolina, and then found a way to blow the largest lead a Tennessee team has blown since Auburn, circa 1990 (which ultimately ended in a tie, which set the table for this to be yet another 2007 historic performance to forget had the Vols lost). A team that gave up over 300 yards in the second half to a South Carolina offense that managed six points against Vanderbilt the week before, while the offense played three and out for most of the same time period. A team whose head coach made what could've been his most idiotic move of all time in wasting a time out in a freeze attempt on Ryan Succop, a time out the Vols could've used to try and win the game in regulation instead of having to spike the ball and kick, after Erik Ainge inexplicably did the one thing he couldn't do by taking a sack and fumbling the football on the final offensive play of regulation. This after Arian Foster was headed back towards counseling for another fumble at the absolute worst time, which was recovered by a hustling Jacques McClendon, which became our best offensive play of the second half. Then decided Daniel Lincoln should kick from 48 yards instead of 43, which is good because he duck hooked that attempt after it was blown dead for a false start. Then decided it wasn't stressful enough, we had to play the most tense situation in college football - a first possession field goal in overtime, meaning the game can end either side on any play with a turnover or a touchdown.
And then suddenly, after all that...South Carolina missed a field goal, and it was over. The roller coaster came to a sudden stop...and inexplicably, you looked around and saw the ride was over, and we were still on top. And not just on the scoreboard...in your newspaper on Sunday morning in the SEC East standings. Again. Blew our chances by losing at Florida, got back in it. Blew our chances by losing at Alabama, got back in it. And appeared to have blown our chances by choking away a 21-0 halftime lead, and once again the Vols found their way back to the top.
Hook and crook, the Vols are in first place.
I had told friends of mine earlier in the week that the word that best described my feelings about Saturday's game was "curious". I was curious to see how we would respond after Alabama. I was curious to see how Carolina would respond after Vanderbilt. I was curious to see our offense against the best defense it had seen all year, and I was curious to see our defense against the worst offense it had seen all year. I was curious to see if this season could be saved, or if we were going in the tank again. Curious.
And "curious" should never be the dominant emotion in regards to Tennessee Football. We should be talking about "excited" or "ready". Or even "nervous" or "angry". The opposite of love isn't hate, it's indifference. And curious leans in that direction.
Curious is the same word I would use to describe my feelings about Florida and Georgia in the Cocktail Party before kickoff, only with the word "mildly" in front of it. I'd already sat here and watched Auburn pull of the improbable major SEC upset of the year last month in Gainesville. We'd already been rewarded with a second Florida loss in Baton Rouge. And when Kentucky couldn't stop them last week, you figured that we weren't good enough to be in the conversation anyway after the Alabama debacle, and if Florida was going to lose again, it would be to South Carolina. Because in the SEC in my lifetime, it's death, taxes, and Florida beats Georgia. On Monday on this blog:
Florida is at the Cocktail Party this week, and if there's anyway for this college football season to get any more insane, it would be Georgia winning this weekend, in a series that's seen Florida win 15 of the last 17. Which is really the best reasoning I can give you for having hope that the Gators will lose this weekend. I'm just saying.
Because we'd seen Georgia. And we'd also seen Florida, along with Cal and Alabama do things to our defense that defy words or past experience. And if you were a betting man, you'd say that if they did that to us, we did that to Georgia, and then Georgia verified it by struggling mightily with Vanderbilt the following week...combined with the history, there was nothing to suggest a Georgia victory. Nothing.
But as it turns out, what started with a quote from Mark Richt - "If we don't get a celebration penalty on our first touchdown, I'll be disappointed." - turned the curiousity from mild to growing. As I was driving in from Virginia and waiting for updates from the Vol Network (bonus points for the woman who called in one of the pregame shows and said "I want to see defense, I want to see some busted knees, I want to see concussions...") and ESPN Radio, you kept thinking "It's Georgia, and it's Florida, and all those shenanigans earlier did was piss them off, and this won't last." And so they held the lead at halftime. And then they kept the lead into the third quarter. And everytime Florida scored (behind a very gutsy, if ineffective effort from Tim Tebow) and you thougt it was over, Georgia scored again. And again. And again. And suddenly, you went from being curious to be something entirely different.
Because all of a sudden, the South Carolina game went from a "meaningless" possible season-salvager but not season-saver, to the in-the-moment SEC East Division Championship Game. And you thought that, and you even read it now, that it can't be right. That Tennessee didn't have any business associating themselves with a championship of any kind. The intensity in Knoxville went from about a six to an eleven just before kickoff. All of a sudden, this became the most important game of the year.
And then, even more improbably and in more ways than one, Tennessee came out and matched that intensity. My friends and I said at halftime that we weren't even playing that well, but UT used two turnovers from Eric "Freshman All-America" Berry and one really good drive, and bang bang bang, the Vols were up 21-0 at halftime. And now your Georgia Dome reservations were becoming less Bruce Pearl and more Phillip Fulmer.
Which brings us back to the whole hook and crook thing. Because when the lead had faded and the Vols had squandered, and South Carolina had every ounce of momentum left in Neyland Stadium on their side - no joke, an observeable number of fans left the game when Erik Ainge threw his 4th quarter interception in a tie game - Tennessee still won the game. When Daniel Lincoln lined up to kick at the end of regulation, I said "We deserve to lose." And I'm the most positive and optimistic Vol fan I know - it wasn't negativity, it was honesty. But sure enough, Lincoln keeps making his case as the best kicker in the conference, and we were off to overtime. And if there's one true fact about Tennessee football, it's that you don't want any part of us in overtime.
5-1 all time in the pressure packed extra sessions, the Vols got more Daniel Lincoln for the lead, then got more good fortune when Blake Mitchell mishandled the snap to open SC's possession. Even so, on 3rd down, with the action unfolding on the opposite end of the stadium, we had a perfect vantage point to see a Carolina receiver break open and the ball leave Mitchell's hands, and as soon as it did I said "touchdown"...
...but Mitchell misfired. And we lived to play another play. And Succop, ice cold from 48 yards just minutes earlier, lined up in Collins Cooper territory. And I wonder if Steve Spurrier was thinking about that just before the kick sailed wide right.
Tennessee won the game. Tennessee is in first place. Tennessee controls its own destiny. When the folks in my churches this morning asked how I managed to stay awake on the drive home, I told them it's because I was trying to make sense of those three facts. And whether you like it or not, whatever your opinion of this season or the coaching staff, be you optimist or pessismist, facts they remain.
The Carolina game itself...I have no idea how to place or qualify it. It'll find its way to the 50 Best Vol Games list, but I don't know where you put it - it's probably the best worst played game I've ever seen. The drama was high, but the quality was low. But at the very least, it's nice to know you can still see something you feel like you've never seen before, between the blown lead, and the way the Vols seemed to have everything going against them...and they still won. Usually, that works the other way around. Usually, the other team blows the lead. And usually, Tennessee is on the losing end of games like that, where you leave thinking "we should've won" and we didn't. But regardless of anything else...Tennessee found a way and got the win, which is more important than anything else.
You can pick apart the performance - which is what they'll do in the film room, no doubt - for as long as you like. I hit the fast forward button on my TiVo for the entire 3rd quarter watching it again today because it's almost irredemable. You'd have to be blind to not have questions about our defense. You'd have to be some sort of robot from the future to not have nerves about facing Darren McFadden and Andre Woodson down the stretch. And I don't know what will happen next. But even if 5-3 is below expectations, the circumstances of the moment mean that 5-3 is good enough for first place. So the Vols continue to be more than relevant. And also in the good news department, it's the Rajun Cajuns next week in Knoxville - which means the Vols can get beat 100-0 and it won't mean a thing.
(Of course, it would mean a thing, but you get the idea.)
In this crazy season, take a look at the SEC East race, in increasing order of difficulty to win the division and make it to Atlanta:
Tennessee - win out (vs ARK, vs VAN, at UK)
Georgia - win out (vs AUB, vs UK) + 1 TN loss
Vanderbilt - win out (at FLA, vs UK, at TN) + 1 UGA loss
Kentucky - win out (at VAN, at UGA, vs TN) + eventual winner of SC/FLA loses this week
South Carolina - win out (at ARK, vs FLA) + 1 UGA loss + 2 TN losses
Florida - win out (vs VAN, at SC) + 1 TN loss + 2 UGA losses
And so as crazy as it sounds as the calendar turns towards November, nobody is realistically out of it yet. Because all of those scenarios - well, okay, except Vanderbilt winning out - could happen.
But only Tennessee controls its own destiny. So no matter where you stand on all the issues we've seen this season, the present moment dictates that the Vols are in first place. And I say any season that ends in Atlanta is a good one. If you complain about the conference being too even or being down, I'll tell you to quit whining and start enjoying things. We're not in first place - and in such dramatic fashion - every day or every year come November. It is, without question, a unique year.
The Vols have to keep getting better. Marsalous Johnson didn't play last night and is probably done for the year. Erik Young is definitely done for the year. Saturday is one of those "don't get anybody hurt" games that the Vols need to win in impressive fashion to make us all feel better and feel more confident coming home. So let's not even talk about Atlanta or even Arkansas just yet. This week, it's the Cajuns. And this week, the Vols are in first place.