Commentary by Mark Wiedmer
KNOXVILLE — With last Saturday’s lopsided loss to Oregon less than an hour old, Tennessee quarterback Matt Simms and his mother were exiting Neyland Stadium when a Big Orange fan approached.
“Tough loss,” the fan said, according to Simms. “But if you beat Florida we’ll forget it ever happened.”
UT running back Tauren Poole heard similar words heading to his classes Monday morning.
“They all said, ‘Forget Oregon. Beat Florida,’” Poole related. “That’s all I’ve heard — ‘Beat Florida.’ It’s all about the SEC now.”
Forget and forgive. We’ve been here before with the Volunteers. Last year, actually. A dispiriting defeat to a Pac-10 school (UCLA) followed by a Southeastern Conference opener against a constantly talented Florida team.
That one ended in a 23-13 Gators triumph that almost seemed like a moral victory for Lane Kiffin’s Vols.
This one will kick off at 3:30 Saturday afternoon inside Neyland Stadium against a Gators gang playing without quarterback Tim Tebow for the first time since Henry Ford built the Model T. (Maybe the “T” stood for Tebow, because it ran and ran and ran.)
But regardless of how many decades Tebow ruled the Swamp, he now plays for the NFL’s Denver Broncos, which means if UT can perform as it did for the first 27 minutes of the first half against Oregon — when the Vols led 13-6 — instead of the 35-0 thumping it endured throughout the second half, the Big Orange just might produce a real victory instead of a moral one.
It would do much to help the Vols’ fans quickly forget and forgive the 48-13 loss to the Ducks.
But this assumes this Tennessee team is physically talented enough to defeat the Gators, or anyone else in the upper echelon of the SEC. As Dooley noted in a general statement Monday, “All we can ever shoot for is to be the best we can be. For some of us, being the best we can be isn’t good enough. That’s OK. You can still be proud of yourself. The shame of it is when we are talented and we have been blessed and we don’t play to our capacity. That’s where we need some work.”
But can this fragile Big Orange fan base — fraying at the edges from three coaches in three years, an ongoing NCAA investigation and the distinct possibility of a second losing season in three years — be proud of these Vols if their best isn’t good enough?
Remember, these are hard-working folks whose athletic director, Mike Hamilton, has raised ticket prices and contributions during painful economic times. At least half of them never wanted Phillip Fulmer gone and never embraced Kiffin.
Now they have Dooley, who enthusiastically embraces UT’s traditions, but who also seems doomed to undergo a major makeover at a time when the fans are tired of new beginnings.
“I think it’s just focusing so much on the results,” the new coach said during Monday’s media lunch. “We’re focusing so much on the scoreboard that when things aren’t going our way on the scoreboard, we get frustrated and we lose sight of what we need to do to win the football game.”
What they need to do to win Saturday is pressure Florida quarterback John Brantley, which they’re capable of doing. The Vols ground game needs to eat up clock and yardage, which it also has the skill to accomplish.
Then UT’s seniors — specifically tight end Luke Stocker and kicker Daniel Lincoln — need to have special days. Even then, it might not be enough.
And if it’s not enough, will it all finally be too much for both the Vols and their followers?
“There’s not a pill they can swallow where they’ll wake up tomorrow and say, ‘I can fight through adversity,’” Dooley said. “The good news is we’ve got plenty of adversity ahead of us. We’re going to have plenty of opportunities to work our way through adversity.”
You need only look at Monday night’s U.S. Open winner Rafael Nadal to know nothing good or bad lasts forever in sports. With Nadal stung by his parents’ divorce and nagging injuries last season, many said he might never claim a seventh major title.
By winning the Open, he became the first player in history to win three majors in the same year on three different surfaces.
So whatever happens the rest of this UT football season, it doesn’t have to be repeated in the future.
But if Dooley’s right that there’s much more adversity on tap for the rest of this season, the Big Orange Nation may forget about 2010 long before it forgives all those who had a hand in its demise.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 757-6273.