Why Florida is Tennessee’s Most Important Game …. In A Long Time

Tennessee's Most Important Game In A Long Time
BRISTOL, TN - SEPTEMBER 10: Members of the Tennessee Volunteers sing the school's fight song following the victory against the Virginia Tech Hokies at Bristol Motor Speedway on September 10, 2016 in Bristol, Tennessee. Tennessee defeated Virginia Tech 45-24. (Photo by Michael Shroyer/Getty Images)

Tennessee vs. Florida: Tennessee’s Most Important Game In A Long, Long Time

Contrary to popular belief, very few games have an actual, lasting impact on football programs. Teams suffer agonizing defeats one week, exhilarating victories the next week.

Over the span of a decade, teams often alternate between being David and being Goliath. Tragedy and triumph are part of the DNA of college football.

But there are some games that impact the trajectory of entire programs. Saturday’s contest against Florida is one such game for the Tennessee Volunteers.

A Walk In The Woods

In all honesty, this story writes itself.

Tennessee is a program and fan base that has seemingly existed at the doorstep of greatness, unnoticed, for 120 years. Vols fans can recite all the numbers: 9th most all-time wins by current FBS programs, 4th in all-time bowl game appearances, and 6th in all-time bowl game victories. Along with that, six claimed national titles, four of which stand up to the toughest scrutiny by an honest broker.

Tennessee fans still yearn for program recognition.

It has the tradition. Every college school has tradition. Tennessee has The Vol Navy, The Checkerboards, and arguably the best team entrance in all of college football. Yes, all schools have tradition. Tennessee’s traditions are as rich as any school in the nation.

But still Tennessee fans suffer from a perception of slight.

Tennessee has Neyland Stadium. A “Grand Cathedral” of college football that seats 102,455 on six Saturdays a year. A stadium that has played host to more home wins than any other existing stadium in the nation, except for Georgia Tech’s Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta. Bobby Dodd was an All-American quarterback at Tennessee, by the way, who played under Coach Neyland.

Still, Big Orange fans can’t seem to get the respect they think they deserve.

Legacy? Check. Between General Neyland’s defensive genius (once called the greatest defensive coach of the 20th Century) and numerous innovations and numerous legendary players, there could easily be a Tennessee Wing of the College Football Hall of Fame.

Again, Tennessee fans suffer in the college football “friend zone”.

Two Roads Diverging

It’s been especially brutal over the last decade. This game represents a path in the woods that diverges in two directions. One, the path to renewed success at the highest levels of college football. The other, another long stretch of mediocrity. It’s that important for many reasons.

First, a happy home. The Les Miles saga at LSU is Exhibit #1 on why it’s so important to keep the fans, the boosters, and the administration happy. Heck, Tennessee can go back to the Phillip Fulmer firing fiasco to see how important a happy home is to a program. A win over Florida exorcises two decades worth of demons. From 1990-2010, when Tennessee had some of the best teams in the nation, Florida went 14-6 against the Vols. Many Vols fans wonder how many championships Tennessee could have won had they not played in the same division as Florida in during those two decades.

Tennessee has historically played second-fiddle in the conference to SEC powerhouse Alabama. Playing second-fiddle in the division is not acceptable.

Next, it’s time for Butch Jones to get his signature win. The come-from-behind against South Carolina was great, as was last year’s come-from-behind against Georgia. The past two bowl wins have been statement wins as well. But at Tennessee, signature wins occur against Florida and Alabama. List complete. As much as Jones has done as caretaker of this historic program – and he’s done a tremendous amount – he has yet to beat either of those teams. Any historian of Tennessee football knows the sad saga of Johnny Majors and the blue ballad of Phillip Fulmer. Majors couldn’t Alabama, and Fulmer couldn’t beat Florida.

That leads us right into momentum, which is the most important reason why this is a program-defining game for Tennessee.

It’s easy to talk about recruiting. Butch Jones has brought in impressive recruiting classes, largely on the promise of early playing time. In today’s college football landscape, many players see their college experience as only a path to get the NFL. Early playing gets early recognition. And early recognition gets national press. And national press gets an underclassman into the draft. Now that Tennessee has depth, Jones can’t sell every recruit on early playing time. He has to sell recruits on championships. And he can only do that by winning championships.

And there’s other momentum to gain. There’s program momentum. Saturday will mark Tennessee’s second GameDay appearance in the first four weeks. In addition to being spotlighted for recruits, being in the national view builds the program’s brand. It makes the Power T recognizable across the nation. Coaches with national brands – think Alabama, USC, Notre Dame, Ohio State – can walk into a home and leverage the brand as much as anything else. Schools can leverage their brand with media rights and licensing agreements. Michigan and Nike signed the richest provider deal in college football this summer, and it wasn’t based on Michigan on-field performance of the last decade. It was based on Michigan’s brand. Program momentum is like investing. Winning begets more money, and more money begets a healthier program. Facilities, better coaches, fancier dining halls. Lose, and the boosters are hesitant to invest.

All The Difference

But none of the above is predicated on just one game. They are singular components until combined with one last element. The competitive momentum.

The psyche of the athlete is fickle. A team psyche is a combination of the fickleness of each athlete. Over the last three years, Tennessee has increased its win total each year. The Vols have won some impressive games. And they were oh-so-close all of last season. The one on-the-field piece that’s missing is the competitive momentum. Often described as “winning attitude” in books or discussed as “learning how to win” in coach-speak, it’s more than the belief that you are going to win the game. It’s knowing you are going to win.

All competitive athletes believe they’re going to win the game. But the ones that play on the great teams know they’re going to win. Exhibit #2 in this case: Alabama’s victory over Ole Miss last weekend. Alabama is the quintessential team that knows they’re going to win. And while they don’t always win, their players go into every game knowing they are going to win. Most everyone else just believes they are going to win. There’s a discernable difference in the composure and comportment of teams that believe they are going to win and teams that know they are going to win. A quiet confidence. A professional, business-like approach.

A victory against Florida will go a long way towards instilling the knowledge of winning in this Vols team – indeed, in the whole program. It will set the mental and emotional tone for the remaining teams on the schedule. That includes the three remaining games of the tough mid-season stretch (Georgia, Texas A&M, and Alabama) and the second-half stretch of “should win” games (South Carolina, Tennessee Tech, Missouri, Kentucky, and Vanderbilt).

The Road Less Traveled

All signs point towards this game being a critical point in the road ahead for this Tennessee program.

A loss, and Tennessee seems destined for another disappointing, 8- or 9-win season. The Vols remain a second tier team in the SEC. Maybe a Top 25 ranking; maybe another quality bowl win. It’ll be business as normal. Good, but not great, recruiting as there’s depth at most positions. Boosters and revenue steady. The Butch Jones era continues marching forward to the beat of national-level mediocrity. Of course, there are many teams in the nation that would enjoy that kind of success. But that’s not how this Tennessee program – players, coaches, alumni, administration, or fans – see themselves. They want more.

A win this weekend against Florida might very well propel them to where they want to be. It accomplishes everything above. A win sets the stage for an SEC East Division title. It gets Jones his first true signature win as caretaker of a proud program. A win furthers the Tennessee brand nationally. No longer is the narrative “11 straight losses to Florida”; the narrative becomes “Tennessee is finally back” in this instant gratification sports news cycle.

Most importantly, it allows this Tennessee team to know that they can win.

And this would truly be the road less traveled for the Vols.

Yes, they’ve been to the top before.

Tennessee was on the verge of becoming a yearly preeminent program in the mid-90s to mid-2000s. It was positioned perfectly: after long playing second fiddle to Alabama, Tennessee was poised to fill the Tide’s vacuum in their interregnum years of DuBose, Franchione, and Shula. But it was not to be, as Tennessee native Steve Spurrier brought his high-powered offensive system to Gainesville. It was the Gators, not the Vols, who ascended to SEC Conference leadership. The Vols most recent national championship was in 1998, the very first BCS National Championship, and came early in this era.

The Vols stood on the doorstep of a dynasty, only to see their division rivals walk right past them.

It’s been more than sixty years – General Neyland’s third and last tour as leader of the Vols Army – since Tennessee was a yearly national championship contender.

The Last Frost Of A Long Winter?

There is a foundation in place for sustained, long-term success. There’s talent, there’s facilities, there’s revenue. And there’s a chance for stability. But Tennessee must realize the return on these investments before the market turns. And the only way to do that is by winning, winning a lot, and winning key games.

This Saturday’s Florida game represents a pivotal moment for the program. It feels like all the chips are in: Smokey Grays, GameDay, #CheckerNeyland, and Lundquist and Danielson on the call. Florida has even played it’s part in this yearly drama with the announcement of yet another back-up quarterback going up against the Vols this week.

Will the Vols step up on the big stage? Or will their long walk on the path of mediocrity continue? Saturday’s result represents the first step in the chapter of Tennessee football.

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