Thursday, May 12, 2016

Time To Talk A Little Volunteer Magic

Anyone who's followed my blog for the past few years is very much aware that I am a passionate college football fan. One of those annoying ones who will watch any game, any time during the season and will re-watch particular favorites on the DVR the other nine months of the year. And anyone who knows me on any level is very well aware that my LOVE is reserved for only one team and that's the Tennessee Volunteers. I come by it naturally--Tennessee born and bred with practically every member of my family sporting orange and white. And when I was a wild child, doing theater up and down the eastern seaboard, I perfected my love of the Vols through two things--understanding the game of football in a way few women back then did, and bartending at a sports bar in Florida, where for one week every fall I was the most unpopular girl with the busiest bar in the Florida Keys. 

No matter how long I tended bar or where, I have never worn any colors but my own school's.Every bar owner who interviewed me for a job, I told two things. First, I will double your Saturday day shift business from August to April. (Like college hoops too--who doesn't?) And second, I will never wear any gear other than Volunteers gear. The last bar owner was skeptical, seeing as Ohio State is only a few minutes away. But after the first two weeks of football season, he bought in--just like all the others did.

Unfortunately, being a Vols fan hasn't been easy, especially over the last decade. After a series of epic and abysmal hiring decisions by the University of Tennessee AD, the Vols' two biggest rivalries have unprecedented losing streaks. We've lost nine in a row to Alabama, and eleven in a row to the Florida Gators. Not because those teams are always so vastly superior, in my opinion, but because of the miasma of depression and failure that seeped like Legionnaire's disease into the sanctum sanctorum known as Neyland Stadium. 

But suddenly things are different up on the Hill.

Any real football fan who isn't blinded by mindless team bias knows that Butch Jones has been building a monster on Rocky Top. And while some Vols fans and the sports media were hyping Tennessee last summer, I went on record with Ryan McGee at ESPN during a substitute gig hosting Paul Finebaum`that I thought the Vols would go 9-4, but a couple of lucky breaks could take them to 11-2.

Sometimes it sucks to be right.

But I also told Ryan that THIS year would be the Volunteers' coming out party. And man--it sure is starting to look that way. Seventeen starters return from a team that last year was too inexperienced to make certain those couple of balls bounced their way. That includes probably the strongest overall backfield in the SEC, a veteran defensive unit that's chomping at the bit under new Defensive Coordinator Bob Shoop, and the top special teams unit in the country in 2015. The schedule is favorable with both Florida and Alabama coming to Neyland, a major out of conference matchup with Virginia Tech slated for the 'neutral site' of Bristol Motor Speedway, just up the road from Knoxville. and the SEC East currently in coaching flux.

In the words of Rod Gilmore as Evan Berry sliced up Northwestern with a 100-yard interception return for a touchdown with 8 seconds to go in the Outback Bowl a few months ago: "2016 is going to be a good one for the Vols if it keeps rolling like this!"

Why thank you--yes it is rolling...rolling...rolling, and I don't mean the Tide.

I have a lot of friends. Many--okay, most--of them are football freaks like me. The cornerstone of our friendship is based on and around football. But there's a catch. While we all love our respective teams, we try to keep the fangurl blindness out of it. Do we backslid into 'my team is better than yours'? Of course we do. But we don't lose our minds over a little 'Alabama sucks' or "Vols choke again'. We can discuss each other's teams and players knowledgably and without prejudice. And I gotta tell you something--

The rest of the SEC is starting to take notice.

Don't believe me? If you've never met LSU Dad, you should. His videos are both insightful and hilarious. And this is what HE thinks:

Sports media makes fun of Butch Jones and his cliches, and I have to admit--I got a little tired of "brick by brick" and "analytics" and some of his other favorite sayings too. But it's funny--this year, Butch Jones doesn't seem to be as hung up on those cliches. It's like he used them to mask what was really going on behind the scenes, and now he knows that...well...he doesn't have to. Because he can't. Offseason moves so far have been huge. Keeping Alvin Kamara, Cam Sutton, and my hometown, same high school (Northeast Eagles in Clarksville!) favorite Jalen Maybin-Reeves was a HUGE win for UT--bigger than signing some of the new recruits, frankly. Hiring Bob Shoop was another massive power play.

But here's why things are different on the Hill.

Today is UT's graduation. We are literally sixteen weeks away from opening kickoff. Sixteen weeks and seven hours from now, the college football season will begin. I've been a Vols fan for longer than I will admit--birth, most likely--and I have to tell you: it's been painful to root for UT the past ten years or so. Literally PAINFUL. Even the past couple of years, when our way-too-young team started to close in on the season, the doubts would begin--not only for the fans, but the players. And why not? Eleven losses in a row to Florida. Nine losses in a row to Alabama. These teams are arguably our biggest rivals. And as those circled dates drew closer on the calendar every year, the same feeling began to churn in all our guts.


But not this year.

This year, when Florida players started mouthing off--looking at you Jalen Tabor--no one was scared. No one was angry. Everyone was like--knock yourself out, pal. Jalen Hurd, our running back, summed it up best.

6'0. 190. Just talkin' for attention. Not going to end well buddy. 

Considering that he's a 6'4", 240 lb running back who delivers hits like this--

--perhaps Jalen Tabor should reconsider poking the beast with a pointy stick. Especially when that beast has fifty pounds on you and runs 19.1 MPH on an elevated treadmill and 23.1 mph on a flat one. I'm no physicist, but I'd be willing to bet that the Jalen vs Jalen collision will favor the big guy in smokey grays. 
Yes, I said smokey grays--and probably a Checker Neyland triumph as well. 
Senior captain Jalen Reeves-Maybin (again--MY hometown and high school)in his response to the Tabor brou-ha-ha displayed something else I really like. 
Reeves-Maybin said he prefers to let his play do the talking.“We’re not gonna feed into that,” Kamara said. “We’re not too thirsty for attention.”
“Just play the game,” Reeves-Maybin said. “Play the game. Let it speak (for itself). You don’t see great players out there saying stuff like that. Just play.”
As for Alabama, my friends who root for the Tide are a little uneasy about the Third Saturday in October--which this year actually IS on the Third Saturday in October. October 15th, in fact--the day before my milestone *mumblemumble* birthday. A group of Finebaum callers are renting a cabin in the Smokies for that weekend and all going to the game. I'm looking forward to meeting them in person as they've all become such dear friends of mine. And nothing would be a better birthday present than driving back to Gatlinburg in a car with five Alabama fans who just watched the Tide get beat in Neyland Stadium.
I'd be able to cross one thing off my bucket list. Happy birthday to me.
The great thing about college football is that you never know what's going to happen. Regardless, though, I'm starting to see a quiet confidence creeping up Rocky Top. Silly fans--the kind who always think their team is going to go undefeated--don't count. But the knowledgeable fans, the sports media, the coaching staff, and the players--they do. While the returning veterans, the favorable schedule, and the feeling that everything is in place cannot be discounted, the main difference I see between the Vols of 2016 and the Vols of the past decade is in the mindset.of the players. Not just the seniors, but the new guys as well. Ever hear of Jonathon Kongbo? 

You will. 
 Is Tennessee's struggle back to the top of the heap over at last? I don't know. Maybe. Sure is starting to feel like it. The important differential is, I think, that the players don't believe UT is back. They KNOW Tennessee is back. The traditions are back. The power is back. The joy is back. The confidence is back. And it's infectious.

I'm not going to predict a record for the season, or wins over the Vols' biggest rivals. I'm not going to predict All-Americans or Heismans or playoff spots. After all, we are talking about the SEC--anything can happen. But it's foolish for anyone to deny after watching the progress UT has made over the past three years that Butch Jones wasn't kidding when he said he was rebuilding the whole program. The Vols just posted their highest collective GPA in the history of the program. Players are matriculating. And some of our guys, like Josh Dobbs, find ways to make a difference in both small ways and big. All of these things are WINS. The Vols are just better all-around, both on the field and off. They're committed to their path--and that kind of commitment doesn't just show up one day out of the blue. Commitment comes with confidence.

Confidence leads to wins. And if the Vols are winning in the classroom, winning on graduation day, winning in the realm of life, then they have learned how to win on the field as well.

It's good to see Rocky Top with its swag back.

So I'm planning to go to several games--the Battle of Bristol, the Florida game (where I fully expect to see smoky grays and Neyland checkered), and Alabama. Planning to drop off some orange roses on the General's grave, and tailgate with all the Volunteers I know and love online. Probably will bring some gator fritters in September and wear my gator boots. In October I'll dig out 'the' sweatshirt--the one I've only worn to the Third Saturday in October games I've attended since I bought the shirt in 1999--'the' sweatshirt is undefeated in three games in Knoxville and two in Tuscaloosa. I may chuck a couple of things at Lane Kiffin if I get close enough. And I'll be certain to be there with signs that will show up on TV if either Gameday or SEC Nation does their pre-game show at Neyland on those days. But for now, Team 120 has inspired me to deliver a line I haven't delivered since Phillip Fulmer was the coach.

See you in Atlanta..And if UT quarterback and senior captain Josh Dobbs is right, see you in Tampa too.

Because THEY believe, they've made a believer out of me.