By now, most are familiar with the narrative that SEC schools don’t travel for non-conference games and even less frequently do so against formidable opponents. Fact: Florida hasn’t played a non-conference game west of the Mississippi since 1983 (USC). Fact: Only the Big-12 Conference plays – by percentage – a weaker non-conference slate. And fact: Only the Big-10 Conference plays more FCS opponents than the SEC on an annual basis. What does all of that mean? Nothing really, after-all they have won 7 straight BCS Titles and public perception leans heavily in their favor. But, while the Volunteers have struggled of late and Oregon is heavily favored in this game, you have to respect their team, not due to who they are today, but rather due to who they’ve been in the past, and who they’ll likely be in the not-so-far-off future.
Since Tennessee legend Phil “The Great Pumpkin” Fulmer retired roughly 5 years ago, the Tennessee football program has been making slow – but significant – laps around the drain. They reached on an unproven commodity named Lane Kiffin, bet on the son of a legend with Derek Dooley, and recently hired Cincinnati’s Butch Davis in hopes of resuscitating a program in cardiac arrest for more than half a decade.
They’re 2-0 this season, with wins over Austin Peay and Western Kentucky, were picked 5th in the SEC’s Eastern Division, and had but one player – linebacker A.J. Johnson - voted to the SEC’s First Team offense or defense. They are better than average on the offensive line, have a formidable player in Defensive Lineman Daniel McCullers, and when push comes to shove can summon the power of notable supporters such as Kenny Chesney, Morgan Freeman, Al Gore, and Cybil Shepherd. Actually, aside from Chesney – Country Music’s honorary member of The Wizard Of Oz’s Lolli Pop Guild – I can’t speak to the others’ Volunteer allegiance outside of being Tennesseans, but I grew up with the Electric Company, loved Shepherd in the 1980’s television show Moonlighting, and we all owe the internet to Ex-Tennessee Senator and former Vice President Al Gore…right? (Wink wink) Bottom line: Tennessee is a proud program who’s been not-so-proud of its football team in recent years, but is looking to kick-start a resurrection with an earth-shattering win over your #2 ranked Ducks this afternoon in Autzen Stadium.
Will it happen? Unlikely, and if you think so you’re a shot too many deep of Tennessee’s own, Jack Daniels.
Certainly, no game – especially one against an SEC opponent – is Checkers in a game much more like Chess, but Oregon at home, with its talent, and Marcus Mariota at the helm, is difficult for the best of teams to deal with, let alone a young middle-of-the-pack squad, traveling 3,000 miles, learning a new system under the guidance of a new coach. Peyton Manning isn’t going to be under center for the Vols, Reggie White – God rest his soul – won’t be rushing the quarterback, and last I checked Jason Witten had a star on his helmet, not a white “T.” The Volunteers might be “killing it” on the recruiting trail, enthused about their new coach, and wearing the badge of honor their conference has afforded them, but future stars, a wet-behind-the-ears whistle blower, and blue-chip friends will offer little help against proven talent in the heart of the Lion’s den.
I give the Vols credit for not finding a way out of the road end of a home-and-home they likely never thought they’d see the Oregon end of, but while sport never counts a team out, the odds suggest it could be a long day for a historical program on the way back. And for the record; Oregon has arrived.