KNOXVILLE — They came early and stayed late, hoping to celebrate long into the night. From students along the strip to the "Vol Navy" folks floating on the Tennessee River, University of Tennessee football fans believed this was the night they would finally unleash years of frustration.
Instead, a second-half collapse allowed 19th-ranked Oklahoma to rally for a 31-24 double-overtime win and add another brick to an already weighted load of disappointment for the orange-clad masses.
Through three coaching changes and several previous heartbreaking late losses, Tennessee fans had been waiting for the promising start to a season that would prove the program was regaining its footing. Through three quarters the Volunteers gave 102,455 inside Neyland Stadium, and countless others watching the showdown on national television, exactly what they had waited nearly a decade for — hope.
But after scoring 17 points in the game's first 18 minutes, UT didn't score again until the first overtime, then ended the game with a Josh Dobbs interception. The result was reminiscent of the game against Florida in September of 2012, when the No. 23 Vols hosted the 18th-ranked Gators as well as ESPN's "College Gameday" and had the campus buzzing with anticipation. UT wilted in the spotlight that night, a disastrous second-half leading to a 17-point Gators win, and the Vols hadn't regained that type of early-season momentum since.
How eager were Vols fans for a win of this magnitude? As UT scored the game's first 17 points, the raucous crowd registered 114 decibels, the loudest ever recorded noise inside the stadium.
Third-year UT coach Butch Jones had helped cultivate the belief that he was the man to put the program back in the national spotlight, having signed back-to-back top-five rated recruiting classes, then taking the Vols to a bowl game for the first time in four years.
He has a signature home win over a ranked South Carolina team midway through the 2013 season but is now 1-12 in his UT coaching career in matchups against ranked nonconference opponents. Saturday's loss extended UT's streak of not beating a ranked nonconference team since the 2006 opener against Cal.
It also extended the excruciating tendency by the Vols to raise the expectations of the fans, only to find new ways to break their hearts.
"I came up hoping to see them replicate that '06 Cal game," said Signal Mountain resident and 2005 UT graduate Josh Melhorn, who arrived seven hours before kickoff to tailgate with friends."I was born with orange in my blood. I've come to games for as long as I can remember and have always loved Tennessee football. The last decade has been pretty tough.
"It's very frustrating. As a fan it's gut-wrenching."
Contact Stephen Hargis at email@example.com or 423-757-6293.