Once I had a girl on Rocky Top, half bear, other half cat. Wild as a mink but sweet as soda pop, I still dream about that …
Unusual words, but admit they sort of make you grin. And this is about to be an unusual proclamation, one that the folks in east Tennessee will be grinning about for a while. Even if everyone else around the league, and college football for that matter, will think I’ve lost my mind.
Tennessee is going to win the SEC championship.
No, no, not just the SEC East. Everyone is predicting that. This season, the Vols go further: Tennessee will win the league title.
Before you ask, yes, I do know that Alabama still resides in the league. That the Crimson Tide is ranked first in everything except the presidential polls. I also know about LSU and Ole Miss and the rest. I also know the Vols haven't beaten archrival Florida since around the time George Washington crossed the Potomac.
I know it all. But I'm not flinching. Tennessee has the best team, with the best opportunity, to win the SEC title. I predict this will be the year the trophy returns to the Tennessee hills for the first time in almost two decades.
Yes, it has been a while. Tennessee won the most recent of its 13 SEC titles all the way back in 1998, the same season it last won the national championship. It has won the East three times since then – 2001, '04 and '07 – but lost in the SEC championship game each time.
Since then, it's been slim pickings. Tennessee hasn't won 10 games since that 2007 team went 10-4. In the eight seasons since, the Vols have been over .500 just three times, and two of those were 7-6 seasons before last season's 9-4 mark. Last season was the only the second time since 2008 that the Vols have been ranked in the AP top 25. And the recently released preseason AP poll – which had Tennessee ninth – marked the first time the Vols made the top 10 in a decade.
As for the Florida thing, there isn't an SEC football fan alive who doesn't know the Gators have beaten their rivals 11 years in a row, an astounding streak for two alleged power programs. Among rivals who play annually and with tradition, championships, resources and huge stadiums, it is the kind of streak that is unheard of.
Even that recent history has its own story. The last time Tennessee won, it shouldn't have. In 2004, the Gators had a 28-27 lead late in Neyland Stadium and were trying to run out the clock. On a running play, two players – Florida receiver Dallas Baker and Tennessee defensive back Jonathan Wade, who had been jawing at each other all night – squared off downfield after the play. With side judge Bobby Moreau (you know it's bad when everyone knows the side judge's name) staring right at both of them the entire time, Wade slapped Baker in the side of the helmet and Baker retaliated, slapping Wade in the side of the helmet. Moreau threw his flag for what appeared to be an obvious unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on both teams, which would offset. But instead, he penalized Baker and not Wade. It cost the Gators 15 yards.
Then, equally inexplicably, referee Penn Wagers forgot to wind the clock after the mark off, even though it was a running play. So the clock never started until the next snap, meaning the Vols got an extra 15 yards and an extra 40 seconds. They held, got the ball back on a punt, hit a few pass plays and kicker James Wilhoit nailed a 50-yard field goal in the closing seconds to win. Gators fans felt like the football gods robbed them like never before.
But those football gods make you pay, too. Despite at least a few times having clearly the better team – including each of the past two years – the Vols haven't won since that strange night in Knoxville. Last season, an eerily similar end-game scenario to that 2004 game developed. After Will Grier's 63-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Callaway, Florida again led in the closing seconds 28-27 – the same score as 2004. And Tennessee again was lining up for a 50-yard field goal to win it – the same distance. And the Tennessee kicker, this time named Aaron Medley, wore No. 25, the same number as Wilhoit. Truly bizarre how similar it all was.
This time, the Vols drew a 5-yard penalty, making it a 55-yarder, and Medley missed twice – once after Florida called timeout – and the Gators hung on. That made it 11 in a row and throngs of Tennessee fans left The Swamp convinced they would never win again.
But somehow, I think the eeriness of similarities and how that one ended sort of purged the jinx, maybe once and for all. For one main reason – Tennessee has a really good team.
Remember, the Vols were 9-4 last season and truly outplayed many of the teams that beat them until the closing minutes. They had leads of 17-0 over Oklahoma and 14-0 over Arkansas and lost both games. They led Florida and Alabama in the fourth quarter and lost. They won the other nine games, meaning they led every team they played. And they did it all without having one player taken in the NFL draft – meaning their best players, the ones who made it all happen, are back.
Among the returnees is the best offensive backfield in the league – quarterback Josh Dobbs and running backs Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara. I'll stop short of calling Dobbs the right-handed Tim Tebow, but, man, there are similarities. He is big, strong, fast, tough. Great runner, decent passer. He is a winner, a charismatic, intelligent leader who owns the locker room and has earned the trust of his teammates, offensive and defensive guys alike. Like Tebow, he isn't a smooth, polished passer, but he has shown signs of improvement. He also returns in a season in which, other than Ole Miss with Chad Kelly, nobody in the SEC has a proven, talented returning starter at the most important position on the field.
Hurd hasn't gotten the attention he deserves because he has played in the same league as Todd Gurley, Leonard Fournette, Derrick Henry and Nick Chubb. But he is a nasty, physical, tough runner who is as good as most of the backs in America. And Kamara is the perfect changeup, an NFL third-down back if ever there was one. Together, the tandem is dynamite.
But there is more. The offensive line returns most of its starters, the receiving corps is big and fast and the defense may have the defensive end in the country in Derek Barnett – coming off a 10-sack season – and an all-world cornerback/returner in Cameron Sutton. Point is, this is an extraordinarily good team.
Coach Butch Jones is an intense cat, and that has worked against him. He seems tight all the time and his teams tend to play tight because of that. Hence, the blown leads late in games. But Jones seems to be learning about himself and is an all-world recruiter who has loaded the deck. And for good measure, he poached highly regarded defensive coordinator Bob Shoop from Penn State to run that loaded defense.
The schedule also works in the Vols' favor for one main reason – Florida and Alabama both have to travel to Knoxville. The 11-game Florida streak gets all the attention, but the Crimson Tide have beaten the Vols nine years in a row. Nobody has tormented Vol Nation like those two teams.
This team has a brutal four-game stretch that will determine its season. In successive weeks beginning September 24, the Vols play host to Florida, travel to Georgia, travel to what could be a sneaky-good Texas A&M team, then return home to play Alabama. I'm convinced they will be 3-0 when that stretch begins despite a matchup with Virginia Tech in front of 160,000 at Bristol Motor Speedway. And I'm convinced Tennessee will go no worse than 3-1 in that tough stretch. The remaining schedule – South Carolina, Tennessee Tech, Kentucky, Missouri, Vanderbilt – is softer than tapioca pudding.
Bottom line: The Vols will be no worse than 11-1. That wins the East. And then the rematch with Alabama. This time, Tennessee wins. Have I lost my mind? Maybe. Almost sounds like I've been hanging in those Tennessee hills.
Corn won't grow at all on Rocky Top, dirt's too rocky by far. That's why all the folks on Rocky Top, get their corn from a jar.
Hit the jar and celebrate, Vols. You deserve it. You've waited a long time.
(You can follow Frank Frangie on Twitter @Frank_Frangie)
© 2016, Frank Frangie. All rights reserved.
© 2016, gridironnow.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.