This has been a painful stretch for University of Tennessee football fans.
A stretch marked by the unknown and unfamiliar feelings of hopelessness. There are fewer UT fans squawking today than we can ever remember, and that is because there is precious little to squawk about. It's a proud group that has been forced to bite their collective tongue far more than they would prefer.
Arkansas thumped the Volunteers 49-7 and finished three feet short of 500 yards of offense last week. It was not pretty for the Vols -- although their new checkerboard sleeves were quite fetching -- and it was far from surprising.
SEC thumpings have been as common as falling leaves the last six weeks for the Vols. The list of firsts this year is not good for a Tennessee fan. This is the school's first 0-6 start in SEC play ever, and only one of those six SEC losses was by single digits.
A sweep of its final two games could get UT in a bowl game, but an 0-2 finish would result in the first eight-loss season in program history. And for the first time in a generation a season-ending sweep of Vanderbilt and Kentucky is not a foregone conclusion.
There has been little joy in Knoxville, and what are you hanging your hat on as a UT football fan? That a mostly healthy Tyler Bray -- a lanky and talented sophomore quarterback whose best win was against Cincinnati -- is going to be able to be Peyton Manning 2.0? That somehow, someway, these Vols -- who have been whipped like rented mules in their last five SEC games by a combined 158-35 -- will start running the ball or defending the pass or pressuring the quarterback Saturday for the first time since SEC play started?
Bray broke his thumb late in the loss to Georgia, and the results without the lanky 6-foot-6 sophomore have been less than pretty for the Tennessee offense. The Vols are 1-4 in the five games since he was injured and are 0-4 in SEC games. UT has scored a grand total of 47 points in those five games, and 24 of them came in the win over Middle Tennessee State. Ouch.
Depending on your point of view on the Vols in general and second-year coach Derek Dooley in particular, you either embrace the common talking points as plausible or tired. Either way you can recite them chapter and verse -- the familiar refrain of depth, injuries, third coach in four years, et al. Are they reasons or excuses? Probably some of both, but hold on to your Smokey T-shirt for the following stat: Vandy is a 1-point favorite against UT today. In Neyland Stadium. Read that again.
The current dire straits of UT football is almost as puzzling as the path to how it got here.
The coaching carousel and roster turnover and missed chances/assessments in recruiting have left this team behind the curve in an SEC that has never been more competitive and more dominant.
That is magnified for UT fans, who can at least comprehend the fact that the Alabamas or LSUs or Floridas or even the Auburns of college football are going to have runs of being better than their Vols, especially when UT is in a time of turmoil/transition. But the fact that Vandy has enjoyed a breakthrough season despite having its third coach in three years and comes to Knoxville as the favorite is hard to fathom.
The how it happened has been debated to the ends of the state, from East Ridge to West Memphis and all points in between. There is plenty of blame to go around, be it in the lap of Phillip Fulmer's fading final years, Mike Hamilton, Lane Kiffin for 13 months of hype and hypocrisy, the roster upheaval, wondering whether Dooley is the guy to turn it around, etc. and et al.
Is it fixable? Of course it is, because UT spends too much money on football and has too much riding on success in football for it not to get better, although tonight will go a long way to revealing whether that time frame is months or years.
Vandy-Tennessee games always have been viewed as a rivalry for Vandy fans and a Saturday in November by Tennessee fans. Commodores coach James Franklin even admitted as much earlier this week.
This, however, is the biggest UT-Vandy game of our generation, and with two relatively new coaching staffs trying to make upward moves in the cutthroat SEC, this game will show us which program is a step ahead.
Whether Dooley is the guy to turn the Big Orange ship around is unknown, although it figures to be more clear tonight. And the fact that you just read that sentence and nodded your head -- that a UT-Vandy game is huge for the Vols and their coach and their fan base -- is the most direct and plain statement that UT football is at its lowest point in a generation.