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Tennessee running back Jabari Small (2) celebrates a touchdown against Bowling Green with teammates during the first half of an NCAA college football game Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021, in Knoxville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)

The Tennessee Vols opened the Josh Heupel era on Thursday night, and the Mocs opened their most promising season since the days of Chamberlain Field.

And while the numbers and scores will fill a different section, here's a vote for the most important stat of the season.

No, it has nothing to do with the transfer portal at Tennessee looking like the Ridge Cut on a Friday afternoon or that UTC returns more than 40 players who started a game in the hybrid, five-game season that was 2020 and the spring of 2021.

The most relevant stat that can forecast success for these college football teams is simple: It's vaccination rates. Yes, Heupel, Tennessee's first-year coach, said more than 80% of the program has been vaccinated, and a UTC spokesperson said Thursday the Mocs football program is right at the 80% mark, too.

With threats of forfeits changing the complexion of the season — and continuing the financial losses in entire athletic programs — the pursuit of vaccination perfection makes sense.

Look at some of the best leaders in football and their vaccination charts. Those charts tell a clear story about the importance of the vaccine in states that are among the most vaccine-resistant in America.

Heupel and Wright have reached right around 4 in 5 players/staff vaccinated in a state that has 41% of its population vaccinated.

Nick Saban, the greatest college football coach to ever blow a whistle, has his program above 90% vaccinated in a state that is second to last with a 38.3% vaccination rate.

The state with the worst rate? Yeah, that's Mississippi, which has 37.7% of its population vaccinated, and where Ole Miss football coach Lane Kiffin and every member of his program have had the shots.

Even in the NFL, it's clear leadership matters. Tom Brady — yeah, he of seven Super Bowl titles — and the Bucs are 100% vaccinated, which makes the Tampa team an outlier in the state of Florida, which has 55.46% of the state vaccinated.

In fact, the success of football programs at the college and pro level in getting players, etc., vaccinated underscores the lack of leadership below college ranks, and how that affects our schools and students' health.

Name one headline in the first three weeks of school here that has been positive about how our area school leaders have handled the COVID-19 challenge?

I'll wait.

But blaming leaders is not the complete story.

Those college and professional football teams have more than leadership in common. They have goals. They have commitment.

They have a sense of team working for the same outcome. We as a community, as a nation, are severely lacking in our commitment to make things better for our entire team.

Whether your team's a workplace or a school, a city or a state, the desires of the individual are derailing every attempt to beat COVID-19.

And now, the one universal statement about our schools on which all sides readily agree — that our school-aged kids really need to be in class — is in serious jeopardy.

Where's the teamwork? Where's the leadership? Because without improvements in both, we have no shot no matter who has and who has not gotten their shot.

Contact Jay Greeson at jgreeson@timesfreepress.com.

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Jay Greeson
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