By Steve Williams
The 2016 Tennessee football season neared like most others, with anticipation and excitement, though many thought this one might be special.
I tempered all the preseason fuss a little by asking if nationally-ranked Tennessee was a paper tiger or for real.
The season started with surprising concern as the Vols had to go overtime to turn back Appalachia State, overcome a terrible first quarter against Virginia Tech in front of the big crowd at Bristol and beat Ohio by only nine points.
Concern turned into a punch in the gut when this Tennessee team fell behind Florida 21-0 in the first half.
Then all of a sudden it became a season of thrills, with 38 unanswered points against those Gators and a victory at Georgia after we thought the game was lost. Hail Mary!
I texted my daughter, Tabatha, who was rooting on the Big Orange from London, with one word … Hallelujah! … and wrote the following week this season had already given UT fans their money’s worth.
Then it became a season of frustration at Texas A&M, a 45-38 loss in double overtime. I wrote the Vols, despite all of those turnovers, could still have won if Butch had gone for two!
Frustration changed to disappointment in the 49-10 beating we took from Alabama. We were already beat up enough with all those injuries and sidelined starters, so the loss didn’t hurt all that much, as in the back of my mind I kind of expected it.
The off week would help us. We would heal up some and get our legs back. Yes, the fresher Vols would run off and leave those Gamecocks in Columbia. What I thought would be a romp became a struggle. I still thought we would pull it out. We could kick a field goal and win in overtime. But the 58-yard attempt was about 10 yards out of our kicker’s range.
An extension of that defeat came the news that Jalen Hurd was leaving the team. I thought he made a big mistake to end his UT career that way. He should have at least finished the season.
As for Hurd’s departure hurting the Vols on the field, I had already seen enough of John Kelly to know he would be a more productive running back in Butch’s read-option system. And ditto for Alvin Kamara when he’s healthy.
The Vols responded with a 55-0 win over Tennessee Tech and I’ve heard some say they felt the UT players looked to be having fun and maybe the team chemistry had improved.
At the same time the Vols were putting an end to their three-game losing streak, Florida was on their way to losing at Arkansas.
Now it has become a season of hope.
If Tennessee, which beat Kentucky 49-36 Saturday, wins out against Missouri and Vanderbilt and the Gators lose at LSU this coming weekend, which is very likely, the Vols can pack their bags for Atlanta and the SEC championship game on Dec. 3.
I can see all those car flags with the Power T flapping in the breeze heading down I-75 South now.
And a win in Atlanta would mean … well, who knows?
Butch has to say “It’s one game at a time.” But you and me and all Vol fans, we can say it’s fun to hope and dream.
It’s still that kind of season.