As the chair jockeys and tongue waggers at ESPN continue their insistence that LeBron James not making a decision on where to play is actually news, there are sports stories looming in the present and not too distant future that actually do matter. The World Cup has been one of the more fascinating things to watch, with real life drama on and off the field. Baseball is sliding into the All-Star break, and most Divisional races are still competitive. The effete, feckless, and corrupt NCAA is fighting for its weak sauce existence in court, and the University of North Carolina, a reputable and respected public institution of higher learning, has recently been accused publicly by former players and instructors of serious and eyebrow raising accusations of academic fraud…like the kind that gets your charter revoked…all big things happening in the sleepy and slow heated air of summer. But here in the south it is precisely that heated and humid air that informs the corpus that one of the most anticipated and awaited periods of the calendar rapidly approaches…that, of course, is football season. There is an ordered procession of ramped expectations in the coming weeks...magazines like Lindy’s (Published by a friend of my radio show, Lindy Davis) and Athlon come out with their preseason predictions and rankings about this time…feeding and building that want and need of every football addict around. High schools crank up the Friday Night Lights around mid-August, and by then end of August, sports fans dive in head first into the waiting five months of non-stop college and NFL football. It is this time of the year that our attention slides ever so slightly to the fall… the question arising with more frequency…and with a smile on one’s face…”Is it too early to talk football?”
The Tennessee Volunteers fan base is no different. In spite of the fact that their beloved Vols have had a rough few years, this approaching season is already the topic de jure in the foothills of the Smokey Mountains. For a fan base that is known for bombast and intense devotion, this coming season is the answer to questions that have been asked repeatedly since 2008. In the six seasons prior to 2008, the Vols were a mainstay in the conversation for SEC East contenders and went a combined 52-25. That was a game you circled every year, and just hoped for a win, if you are a fan of another team. Three coaches and six seasons later they have struggled to have winning seasons and are a combined 33-41. So, why the excitement? A new coach and a top 5 recruiting class this year did the trick, and has “Vol Nation” dreaming of a successful season. But what is a successful season for Ol’ Rocky Top? In my opinion, and from conversations on my show, that would be a 6-6 regular season and a bowl appearance….maybe even a win in the bowl game. Fans who are already talking 7-5 or 8-4 (yes, I have heard this…a bunch) are preciously and fascinatingly optimistic, and, for these purposes, we’ll just leave them to their helium induced prognostication. I’m not saying that those numbers are impossible. Anything can happen, and that’s why you play the game. That said, we can’t quantify or qualify luck, or any other intangibles that would be needed for that to happen, and it is a fact that a bowl appearance and, possibly, a winning season would be a significant thing for UT, and would point to the orange ship being righted. The question then begs…can they do it? Is it realistic to believe that the 2014 version of the Vols can get to 6 wins in the season? I believe it is very realistic, and will, in fact, come down to 4 specific games in the 12 game schedule: Florida, at Ole Miss, Missouri, and at Vanderbilt.
For the sake of expediency and fluidity, let’s assume that Tennessee beats the teams they are supposed to beat (Games that Tennessee will be favored in.) and lose to the teams that they are not supposed to beat (Games where they will be the underdog.). That puts the Tennessee Volunteers at 4-4…with wins over Utah St. (not a pushover), Arkansas St., Chattanooga ( Sorry, Coach Huesman), and Kentucky…and losses to Oklahoma, Georgia, South Carolina, and Alabama. Naturally, anything can happen in those games…but let’s just say. Combined those remaining four games will decide the character and definition of this 2014 team, and will be the crux of the story. Individually, each has its own story and grudge…and your Tennessee Vols have to win 2 of the 4 to get to 6.
The Florida game, without a doubt, is the biggest of all of them, but not for winning season purposes, necessarily. Were Tennessee to lose this year to Florida, it would be a full decade since their last victory over the Gators. A decade. 10 years. There is a special kind of dominance that a record like that requires, and history usually marks it with vigor. After all, it just doesn’t happen that often…either pride or circumstance prevents it. A team just can’t let another team best them ten years in a row. You just can’t…and for that reason, the Florida game is the biggest. It’s at vaunted Neyland Stadium…and the Vols simply have to win that game. If they don’t, they can still get to 6-6, but it would be extra sweet to end that curse and stack a “W”. My expectation is that Florida will be much improved on offense this year with new OC Kurt Roper, a David Cutcliff protégé, and they always have a nasty defense. That will be a tough game. The Mississippi Rebels are a team on the rise, and “The Grove” can be a tough place to play. They are young and talented…with a seasoned Quarterback and skill players. This, in my opinion, will be the toughest of these four games to win for UT. It’s on the road, and Ole Miss looks poised to get to 8 or 9 wins. Mizzouri might not be as good as they were last year, but they still should be a solid team. Coach Pinkel and Co. have recruited well the last few years, and have a kid at QB in Matty Mauk who reminds me of Drew Brees while at Purdue. This game is at home, and Tennessee really needs to win here. If you want to go to a bowl game, and you play in the SEC, you have to beat teams like Mizzouri at home. Finally, that leaves arch rival Vanderbilt. Vandy, having lost their Head Coach and a number of skilled position players in the offseason, will surely fall back to earth after one of their best seasons in school history last year. Coach David Shaw is a defensive specialist from Stanford, and will do good things at Vandy, but it might take a year or two. This, even more so than the Florida game, is a must win for winning season purposes. In fact, it’s the most important of the 4. A loss in Nashville would mean that Tennessee has lost to the Vanderbilt Commodores 3 years in a row…and Vols fans will tell you openly and proudly…that isn’t supposed to happen. In addition, a loss here, in my opinion, would prevent UT from reaching 6 wins. I just don’t see a way to lose to Vandy in the last game of the year and get to 6. Okay…miracles happen...but still…and they call them miracles for a reason. In short, the Vandy game is the only 1 of the 4 that is a “must win” to be Bowl eligible.
The Tennessee Vols fans have much to be excited about. Coach Butch Jones is a great recruiter and, possibly, a good in-game coach. There’s lots of young and highly touted talent in Knoxville that, once experienced, should produce more scoring and defense, and therefor, more wins. But there are huge questions looming for this 2014 season…QB, rebuilding both lines from scratch, inexperienced secondary, etc…and it will be interesting to see how Vols fans react if the “brick by brick” rebuilding project takes longer than two years. If they are patient, I expect they’ll be happier in the next few years. If they are impatient, and start hanging numbers on the team like 7, 8, or 9, it will be self-defeating. But I get it…4 losing seasons in a row is a tough thing to take. And like Francis in the movie She’s the One…it gets old talking about down cycles.
W. Michael Lawson is an alumnus of Lee University and University of Richmond. Mr. Lawson currently hosts a weekly radio show “The Strong Sauce Hour” and Co-hosts a daily sports show “The Sports Drive” on 101.3 FM/1570 AM. You can follow him on twitter @thestrongsauce.