KNOXVILLE — Win or lose Saturday, Tennessee's football season figures to be inexorably changed by its result against top-ranked Alabama.
Win against the Crimson Tide for the first time in six years and the Vols should finish no worse than 8-4, and that's assuming they lose next week at South Carolina, which could have its own self-esteem issues by then.
Lose, however, and 2012 officially becomes a Big Orange Bust. It would likely post an 0-3 record in October — which would mean an 0-5 start in Southeastern Conference play for a third straight season under head coach Derek Dooley — and fortify a very realistic concern that this team could mail it in the rest of the way.
Lose badly to Bama and it's certainly easy to see the November game at Vanderbilt becoming the difference between the Vols going 7-5 or 6-6.
And don't think for a minute that Commodores coach James Franklin hasn't already prepared a DVD of Dooley's antics after last year's game in Neyland Stadium, hopeful that Vandy would do everything in its power to prevent such a celebration this time around.
But what if UT wins? What if it shocks the college football world, much as Texas Tech stunned West Virginia last week? Or Stanford shocked Southern Cal earlier this season? Or Louisiana-Monroe stunned Arkansas in September?
A single quote from UT senior fullback Ben Bartholomew, whose brother Will never lost to the Tide and whose grandfather Sam won twice over Bama: "We're playing Tennessee football. and I think if we can execute our plays, I don't think anybody can stand with us."
The Crimson Tide Nation understandably could scoff at that premise. Alabama's defense is No. 1 in almost every statistical category except shutting down Iran's potential nuclear threat. And that's probably only because the Pentagon has yet to put Bama boss Nick Saban on speed dial. At least as far as we know.
You supposedly can't run on the Tide, since they are surrendering 55.3 yards a game on the ground. Want to pass? Hope you can win piling up 125 aerial yards. Beyond that, in a league known for "D," after six games the Tide are giving up nearly 40 fewer yards a game than next-best LSU, which is surrendering a Scrooge-like 219.6 yards a contest.
Yet for those few remaining souls who still admit to bleeding Orange, there's also this: Tennessee has been in every game this season. With the exception of the fourth-quarter meltdown against Florida, the Vols have been within a possession of tying or taking the lead in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter of every game.
And UT led the Gators midway through the third period.
"We've lost three SEC games, and in my opinion I think we were better than all three of them," offensive lineman Antonio Richardson said. "But you know sometime it doesn't go your way."
It's tough to see a scenario in which this game goes UT's way. The Vols do pile up 59 yards more offense a game than the Tide, but the defense gives up nearly 250 yards more and an average of 24 more points.
Moreover, despite their somewhat conservative offense, the Tide are scoring 40.5 points a game to UT's 38.
So how can Tennessee win? A couple of past UT wins over Bama might offer a clue.
The Vols broke an 11-game losing streak against an undefeated, second-ranked Tide in 1982 by winning a shootout 35-28. Alan Cockrell turned the tide, so to speak, in that game with a 52-yard strike to Willie Gault.
These Vols have a better pure passer in Tyler Bray and may have two Willie Gaults in Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson. And good as Bama has been to date, it has yet to face any offense as potentially potent as UT's.
Then there's the Ken Donahue factor. A longtime Tide assistant, Donahue joined the Vols before the 1985 season. Bama entered that year's game averaging 29 points a game. It was held to less than half that in a 16-14 defeat.
Maybe first-year UT defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri is another Donahue and maybe he isn't, but he was a Bama assistant last season, and regardless of this season's struggles, he surely knows a few weaknesses about Bama's players — especially quarterback AJ McCarron — that no one else knows.
Does any of this mean UT will beat what appears to be the best college football team we may have seen in years? Not necessarily.
But despite what could have been a devastating loss at Mississippi State on Saturday night, there is also a remarkable sense of confidence in the Vols players.
On paper, this looks to be no closer than a 42-32 Bama win, which is what each team's offense has averaged against its four best opponents.
But something about this feels different.
Or as Dooley noted Tuesday of the Vols' blown opportunities, "If we can go out and play to our capacity for 60 minutes, we can find ourselves right in that position that we have been in every week."
There may never have been a bigger "if." But there's also never been a bigger opportunity for the Vols to prove their many critics wrong.
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...