Here we are again.
Another big Saturday for the Volunteers, another tall task that seems too steep for a bunch that is one step slow, one foot short and one pound light for far too long.
Are these Vols overmatched or underachievers? Is it some of both or too much of each?
Either way, there is so little confidence among the University of Tennessee fan base heading into tonight's home game against top-ranked Alabama, the banter and pregame talk have tilted toward keeping it close and avoiding embarrassment. To that I say stop it. Just stop it now.
If keeping it close is the goal, then Derek Dooley's time in Knoxville is closer to being done than anyone realizes. Accepting defeat before the kickoff is every bit as crippling as the dreaded 0-13 number that shows Dooley's perfect imperfection against ranked teams as the UT boss.
This feels wrong, right? This is the University of Tennessee, for crying out loud, and by almost every measuring stick the second-best all-time program in the best college football conference on the planet.
Sure, Alabama is rolling. The Crimson Tide have reached a nearly unmatched level in the BCS era. They have been favored in 39 consecutive games - they're 20-point picks tonight - and are the front-runners to win it all this year. If Alabama does, it would be its third title in four years, an unprecedented run in the 15 years of the BCS.
Alabama is great, but everyone is beatable. Everyone.
But is this feeling of dread - most of the Johnny Vols Fans around appear to have the look of a child going to pick his switch for his looming whipping - because of Alabama's superiority or Tennessee's struggles? That's the crux of tonight's meeting, and like most matters the truth may lie somewhere in the middle.
The whereabouts of reason for UT is a reason to locate this program's whereabouts.
Let's remember that the SEC needs Tennessee to be better than this, truthfully. Think of it this way: Which game is better, Alabama-Tennessee or Texas A&M-LSU? It would seem to be the Aggies-Tigers since it pits two ranked teams with a total of two losses between them. But which game did ESPN pick for prime time?
There's some talk about ESPN/ABC not wanting to split the viewer-rich state of Texas, considering the ABC prime-time game of Texas-Baylor, and that may be true. Still, the Vols are one of the powerful SEC's true national brands. That's true today despite their recent struggles, but national brands don't fight like heck to get to the Music City Bowl every year.
Tennessee fans deserve better, but deserve has nothing to do with it. More importantly, Tennessee fans expect way, Way, WAY better. Those expectations are invaluable. As bad as today seems, it could get worse, and it will if the program as a whole starts settling for less and lowers the measuring stick for what we all know Tennessee football should be.
Because if you lose the expectation of success, not only is success impossible, but that's the initial, monster step toward apathy. And forget the status of any coach or single team in a year: When apathy sets in, it can kill a program for the better part of a decade.
The odds are great tonight, but so is the opportunity. Word from our UT beat writer Patrick Brown in today's paper has NFL-wired folks hinting that Vols stars Tyler Bray, Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson could be well-served with another year in Knoxville. If that happens, their presence would make 2013 infinitely bright.
But potential and production must be melded at some point for the Vols in general, and Bray in particular. Whether today is his final swing or there is another autumn in orange in his future, there are only so many chances in this great circle, and with each spin around the block, Bray's misses mount. As do Dooley's.
Is this the swing that UT and Dooley and Bray land? Is this the moment that belief and loyalty are rewarded for the legions of UT fans who have survived the twists and turns of the Knoxville version of "All My Children" in the last five years?
Maybe or maybe not. But if you think the answer is set in stone, then time is surely running out in Knoxville, no matter who returns for their senior year.