A season that's swung hard between disaster and championship now hangs in the precious balance between the two, and it's a tighter grip than most predicted but we all should've seen coming. For many, after the 34-13 dominance against Arkansas, the thought creeped in that the Vols would routinely take care of Vanderbilt and Kentucky the way they do, and we'd be in Atlanta. The News-Sentinel reported earlier this week that calls to SportsTalk last week were 3-to-1 in favor of talking about LSU in Atlanta rather than Vanderbilt or Kentucky. But if you haven't figured out that nothing is routine in 2007 yet...well, you've still got two more weeks to learn it.
Actually, a few things are still routine. Like Vanderbilt finding a way to lose.
With a crowd more lifeless than you'd expect and Inky Johnson earning the most volume from Neyland on the night until the 4th quarter - which is nice, but not good - the 2007 installment of Tennessee/Vanderbilt really felt like it was turning into one of those games where Tennessee makes mistakes and simply isn't good enough to overcome them. Where you can't throw the kitchen sink at Fulmer or this team for their effort or performance, but a blocked PAT here, a field goal off the upright there, a dropped pass/lateral at the end of the half thrown in for good measure, and the Vols dug themselves a 24-9 hole early in the 3rd quarter. And I kept remembering what I'd seen of the South Carolina/Vanderbilt came back on the Third Saturday in October, knowing that Carolina was flat and mistake prone, Vanderbilt built a 17 point lead, and Carolina's offense flat wasn't good enough to make that up. So as the minutes ran down and the Vols kept having to run Britton Colquitt on the field, it seemed like this was going to end up the same way - whether it's Vanderbilt or not (and sure, losing to Vanderbilt again may have been irreparably damaging to Phillip Fulmer), the Vols gave it away early and couldn't get it back late. And if there was a year for the Vols to go down to Vanderbilt, as has been stated, this be it.
But while it's true that death, taxes and Vanderbilt losing may have been bent, you found out on Saturday that it's still not broken. And whether you allowed yourself to remember it or believe it during the closing moments on Saturday afternoon, the truth was ultimately in the pudding as usual: Vanderbilt did some giving and the Vols did some taking in the 4th quarter, and when the clock hit 00:00, the Vols came out on top. One point. One hundred points. Doesn't matter. They're Vanderbilt.
(Remember, I wasn't at the game in 2005 and I didn't see it on TV, so it's like it never happened in Will's head.)
You'd be hard pressed to argue that the roughing the punter call wasn't the biggest play of the game, because it carried a tangible turn. You'd also be hard pressed to figure out how Erik Ainge went from great to shaky to great in the course of one game. If you're like me, you're still hard pressured to figure out how the back judge decides to throw a flag 20 yards and 5 seconds off the play for pass interference when the Vols appeared to have sealed the game after finally regaining the lead on an icy Daniel Lincoln field goal.
But I will tell you one thing: when Vandy lined up to kick that field goal, by that time I'd remembered and I was believing. Either they were going to miss, or we were going to take two time outs and the :38 left on the clock and kick our own field goal to win anyway. Because they're Vanderbilt. And putting game winning kicks off the uprights is what they do.
I'm not being mean. I'm being factual. At home this week against Wake Forest with bowl eligibility once again on the line? Take Wake. I like Bobby Johnson a lot, I think he's done a tremendous job in Nashville in an impossible situation. Because they're Vanderbilt, and no one wins there. Johnson has done the best he could. But Vanderbilt's best still isn't good enough to beat Tennessee with championships on the line.
You can nitpick it. You can complain. You can be like the guy on my row who screamed "(expletive) YOU, FULMER!" when Austin Rogers jumped early on the first play of the eventual game winning drive. Because that makes sense.
And here's the point: all of this talking and hypothesizing and back and forth is coming to a head in six days. Because in six days, it either will or it won't. Saturday afternoon in Lexington, either the Vols will walk off as SEC East Division Champions, or they'll walk off as an 8-4 team that lost three games by 77 points and lost to Kentucky for the first time in 22 years. And maybe that's unfair, but it's also incredibly true.
If the Vols win, they'll get to Atlanta and win a title this season. And if you don't think it's a big deal to win the division, I feel sorry for your outlook on life. It doesn't matter if it comes at 9-3 or 12-0 - winning this division, which is the toughest in college football, and putting yourself in Atlanta to play for the SEC Championship and the BCS, means you've had a good season. I don't care that it means this year that the rest of the SEC has beaten each other up more than usual. And I also don't care if LSU goes on to beat us by sixty. If you get to Atlanta, it's a good year. And nothing you say, short of ultimately losing to LSU and the bowl game by about 100 combined points, will be enough to make me believe that any coaching changes are necessary or a good idea. Any argument will be countered with Atlanta. And Mike Hamilton will tell you Atlanta is the goal every year.
If the Vols beat Kentucky, 2007 is a good year. It will have a chance to become a great year in Atlanta and then again sometime in late December/early January. But you won't be able to go back and take away the division title. It would set up - unless they stub their toe against Pig Sooie this week - a showdown with the #1 team in the nation. It would present the only realistic opportunity to make the second Saturday of December, 2001 a little bit more alright. It could become one of the most memorable games in Vol history. And win or lose in Atlanta, it would be a great way for Erik Ainge & company to go out. Winning the East is the first goal every year. Winning the East is a good season any year.
I will not be swayed on this argument. But I also could do no logical swaying the other way should the Vols lose on Saturday.
If you lose to Kentucky, it's not a good year. It's not a "fire Fulmer!" year (factor in the bowl game first) just yet from the masses, but there's nothing you can go back and point your finger at and say "yeah, that was good." Beating Georgia becomes lifeless if you lose on Saturday, because then Georgia wins the division. Slowing down Darren McFadden is a good isolated story but not a great year. And this isn't last year, where you can say "back from the dead of 5-6" or point to a resurrection effort against Cal and Georgia, a one point loss to the eventual National Champions and two games played without your quarterback. There. Is. No. Middle. Ground.
We've been saying this a lot this season, and it's never been to be dramatic. The Georgia game really was first place in the East/coach is fired. And every game since South Carolina really has been control your own destiny, win and you're in/lose and you're toast. The bowl destinations remain as muddled from New Orleans to Nashville. Kentucky is the final step, the final chance to swing the balance to the good. So it becomes the most important, even without the Wildcats being good or that whole 22 years in a row thing (which is, once again, the longest active streak in an annual rivalry in the country, thanks to Navy).
And Kentucky isn't Vanderbilt, even if I can't make that make sense with the whole 22 years straight thing. While we really don't blow out Vanderbilt with any greater regularity than we do Kentucky, it seems like UK has taken us to the limit with greater frequency. 1995 and 2001 immediately come to mind, and there have been others. And Kentucky always, always has a greater probability of putting a good team on the field, let alone a team with an offense that seems designed to beat us with Randy Sanders on the trigger.
So it will be anything but easy. But as we've said since August - Tennessee is every bit flawed enough to lose, and every ounce good enough to win. It was true at Cal, it'll be true at Commonwealth. One more to get home. One more to win the East. One more for the good. Everything is on the line.
Expect to win.