By Mark Nagi

Admit it. You didn’t have high preseason expectations for the Tennessee Volunteers football team.

I mean, how could you? You’d seen the Vols lose game after game for most of the last 15 years. They had lost 15 in a row to Alabama, beaten Florida only once since 2004, and weren’t even in the same zip code talent-wise when compared to defending national champion Georgia.

Tennessee would also have to play at Pittsburgh and at LSU. Kentucky was a hip pick to make some moves in the SEC. The schedule was not set up for a breakthrough season.

But that’s exactly what has happened.

No matter what the rest of the season holds, the 2022 campaign should forever be remembered in glowing terms by Tennessee fans.

Let’s go down memory lane just a bit, shall we?

The Vols beat Pittsburgh in overtime 34-27 in week 2, avenging a loss at Neyland Stadium the previous season. This was a game in which Tennessee’s high-powered offense was pretty much held in check during the final two quarters, but the Vols’ much-maligned defense kept making stops.

A couple of weeks later, the 3-0 Vols welcomed hated Florida to Knoxville. Checker Neyland was in full effect on a beautiful afternoon for football. ESPN’s College GameDay was here and witnessed a contest that UT controlled most of the day.

But things never go that easy against the Gators. A successful onside kick made things a bit tense for Tennessee in the final seconds, but the Vols held on for a 38-33 victory.

Following a bye week, there was a trip to LSU. The football gods smiled on the Big Orange thanks to an 11 a.m. local time kickoff. Tiger Stadium is not an easy place to play at night (as Alabama found out a few weeks ago), but they seemed to be sleepwalking following a fumble on the opening kickoff. Tennessee converted that gift into a touchdown, and never looked back in a 40-18 pounding of what would eventually become the SEC West champions.

Seven days later, ESPN College GameDay was back to see Tennessee host Alabama. In one of the greatest college football games ever played, the Vols got five TD catches from Jalin Hyatt, and a wounded 40-yard quail of a kick from Chase McGrath as the clock struck zero. The 52-49 win brought forth a celebration not seen at Neyland Stadium since the 1998 Florida game.

Cigars were lit, goalposts torn down and tossed into the Tennessee River, and fans had a story to last a lifetime.

Two weeks later, Kentucky was the Vols’ next victim. The 44-6 victory probably wasn’t even as close as that 38-point gap suggests. The Wildcats never seem to be able to beat the Vols, no matter the talent level on each sideline. On that night, it was obvious who the better team was.

When the first College Football Rankings came out, the Vols were number 1. For a program that hasn’t played in a major bowl game since 1999, that was quite the accomplishment. Yes, things did not go well at Georgia. The Bulldogs proved they were still at the top of the SEC heap in a 27-13 victory, but the Vols had shown the nation that they deserved to be in the national conversation.

Which leads us to the next couple of weeks. Tennessee may get a spot in the College Football Playoff. They might not. If they don’t, a trip to the Sugar Bowl is likely for the first time in over 30 years. Ask any Tennessee fan before the season began if they’d make that deal and all of them would have jumped at the opportunity for a few days on Bourbon Street.

Tennessee football is back. Vols fans should enjoy the good times even more because they’ve certainly been through the bad times.