The roller coaster that has been year one of the Lane Kiffin Era at the University of Tennessee was forever changed Thursday morning. Three freshmen, one brandishing a pellet gun, awkwardly attempting a heist of what ultimately would have yielded just a cheeseburger has become the focal moment of this season.
The tenor is different even if Kiffin's tone is not. The present will continue to shape the future, but the playing field is no longer the only stage in the equation.
Now the actions of Janzen Jackson, Nu'Keese Richardson and Mike Edwards have forced Kiffin into a position that few coaches desire but almost every coach has to face. The impression that zoomed to the forefront was Kiffin's stern, almost steely, expression during Thursday's news conference -- a lasting image replacing the trademark Kiffin smirk that energized the Vols Nation and aggravated the rest of the Southeastern Conference.
Now those roles have been reversed, and how Kiffin and Co. handle the trying days, weeks and months to come in this case likely will be their largest legacy from this season.
It's a shame, too, for dozens of reasons that involve dozens of others in UT's program, including Kiffin, who more than likely were sound asleep early Thursday morning.
Picture some of the other storylines that do not involve an attempted felony and have been engulfed in the shadows that only shady dealings can cast.
* Under the tutelage of UT's defensive coaches, tackle Dan Williams has bull-rushed from dependable senior to probable first-day NFL draft pick. He arguably is the most improved player in the conference and possibly its best defensive lineman.
* The flip-of-the-switch transformation of Jonathan Crompton is borderline inexplicable. For the better part of the first three and a half years of his playing career, Crompton had been euphemistically an enigma. More honestly, he had been a borderline disaster.
Since the dawn of October, though, Crompton has been the league's best quarterback. Seriously. Check the numbers. Including UT's Oct. 3 loss to Auburn, Crompton has completed a whisker less than 60 percent of his throws (94-for-157) for 1,297 yards. His turnover-plagued past has vanished, and the big plays that he seldom delivered have become commonplace. A 14-to-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio can erase a lot of history.
* The resilience of these Vols, especially against top-ranked foes Alabama and Florida, and their ability to focus on the task at hand have been impressive.
Now that task comes with a cloud -- the dreary, heavy, dark, serious cloud that comes when terms such as "felony," "prison" and "gunpoint" are involved.
The process starts today, though. With Jackson, Richardson and Edwards left behind in Knxoville, an inspired effort will be needed against Ole Miss. And such an effort would say a great deal about these Vols' feelings for this staff.
But unlike Tennessee's two previous road trips -- inspired losses at the Swamp and against the Tide -- anything short of victory will not be judged a success. It will, instead, magnify this week's distractions and lead to some new and somewhat painful questions such as "What if?"
And more than anything else, Kiffin's first year has been more about "What will be?" -- at least until last Thursday.