As is sometimes the case on a college playing field that is becoming increasingly more level, circumstances have conspired to wreck what had the potential to be a championship campaign. But the elements that caused expectations to soar in August are still in place and, as always, fans remember what you do in November.
No, UT isn't playing for any championships against Memphis and it can't undo a disappointing season in a day, but it can take that first vital step back to the road of respectability and ease some pain along the way.
The Vols have had a lot of reminders about the 1988 season this fall because that was the last time the team had a losing record and failed to qualify for a bowl game. No doubt, they will be reminded this week the journey back after an 0-6 start that year began with a 38-25 victory over what was then known as Memphis State. From those humble beginnings, Tennessee would go on to lose only once in its next 24 games, as it finished with five straight victories to close out 1988 and posted back-to-back SEC championships in 1989 and 1990.
True, the Tigers (4-4) smell blood of an oft beaten but still unbowed Tennessee team. They'll enter this contest knowing a homecoming upset is within their grasp. The problem is these cats are more scavengers than predators, and they are clearly the weakest team the Vols have played in an absolutely brutal 2005 schedule.
Prior to this game the weakest opponents Tennessee played were UAB and Ole Miss, two teams that beat the Tigers in Memphis by a combined score of 47-26 and lost to the Vols in Knoxville by a combined score of 41-20. A very good case could be made that if Memphis had played Tennessee's schedule they would be 0-8 and if UT had played Memphis' schedule they would be 8-0.
For instance: The same week Tennessee was losing to No. 6 Florida in Gainesville 16-7, Memphis was beating D-II Chattanooga 59-14. Two days before the Vols rallied from a 21-point deficit to beat LSU in overtime at Baton Rouge 30-27, Memphis lost in overtime at Tulsa 37-31. The same day Tennessee was toppled at home by No. 5 Georgia 27-14, Memphis was beaten by Central Florida 38-17. The same day Tennessee lost to No. 5 Alabama in Tuscaloosa by a field goal, Memphis beat East Carolina in the Liberty Bowl by a field goal.
While the Vols are finally catching a break from the schedule makers, Memphis is clearly playing their toughest opponent. The Vols have played five teams ranked in the top 10 this season, while Memphis has yet to play a ranked team — period.
Nothing Memphis has done to this point has prepared them to defeat a team of Tennessee's talent level. Granted the Tigers have an excellent running back in DeAngelo Williams, but just because he's leading the NCAA in rushing doesn't make him college football's best back. In truth, he might not even crack USC's three deep chart.
There's no question he has yet to meet a team so adept at stuffing the run as Tennessee is, and he will find running outside a near impossibility given the Vols speed and ability to pursue. Ask Alabama if it would trade Kenneth Darby for DeAngelo Williams? Then ask Darby how much fun it is to run against Tennessee's defense?
Special teams could be an issue, but the Vols finally have Demetrice Morley returning kicks and Jonathan Hefney returning punts. If Britton Colquitt keeps his punts out of the middle of the field, the Vols stand a good chance of turning this area of weakness into a genuine strength, especially given James Wilhoit's steady improvement as a place kicker.
Not convinced? Here's something else to consider. Memphis is 5-21 all-time against SEC teams and 1-18 all-time against Tennessee. Meanwhile, the Vols have won 10 of their last 11 homecomings and has never lost to the Tigers in Knoxville where they are 10-0 vs the Tigers.
Expect Memphis to be fired up and anxious to engage the Vols. But everybody knows you approach a cornered, wounded animal with all due caution, and you should never go bear hunting with a switch.