Vol Fans Have A Right To Expect More

In the midst of the most disappointing Tennessee football season in recent memory there is a temptation to give up the ghost of 2002 and look to next year.

Indeed the biggest beneficiary of the Vols collapse might be UT's men's basketball team which, for once in a long time, won't suffer by comparison since it is generally picked to finish last in the SEC East. Conversely, the football team, which was picked to finish first in the nation by at least one well respected preseason publication and first in the SEC by most, is in a struggle to finish even in the conference.

Outrage over Tennessee's gridiron performance this season is actually preferable to the apathy that has often accompanied the Vols basketball campaign. In outrage there is passion which underscores deep concern and fervent hope, while in apathy there is only lack of interest or even attention.

True enough everybody, including UT faithful, loves a winner. Americans in general and Vol fans in particular, will root for an underdog and even embrace an overachiever. However nobody, other than perhaps the psychologist or poet, has much use for an underachiever. America is a nation by its very definition that holds underachievers in utter disdain.

In UT's case that disdain borders on outright contempt for a several good reasons. First the Vols have lost to their three principle rivals in the SEC — Florida, Georgia and Alabama. Secondly, Tennessee, which has lost only three home games in the last seven years before this season, is almost certain to equal if not exceed that number of home defeats in 2002. Finally, UT hasn't even been competitive while losing to Florida and Alabama by a combined 38 points.

Sure Tennessee has had more than its share of hard luck with injuries, particularly on defense where the Vols lost their fastest down lineman Constantine Ritzmann to an knee injury before the season even began. That was followed by the loss of their fastest linebacker Kevin Burnett in the first quarter of the season opener against Wyoming. He was preceded by super swift outside linebacker Tony Campbell, who failed to qualify academically, and followed by linebacker Kevin Simon who broke his leg in game No. 4 against Rutgers.

Yes the defense has lost a lot of speed among its front seven, and it shows in the their blitz schemes and the lack of pressure they can bring to bear on opposing quarterbacks. And yet, despite losing their three fastest linebackers and quickest defensive lineman, a Tennessee defense built on speed has remained competitive. At least 17 of Alabama's points were directly attributable to turnovers and bad calls. The same is true of the flop against Florida. Tennessee holds a good Georgia offense to 18 points in Athens and still loses by five.

While Tennessee's defense continues to strive in the face of adversity, the offense continues to grope in the dark. An offensive unit that has three underclassmen — Kelley Washington, Casey Clausen and Jason Witten — projected to go in the first round of the NFL Draft, plus five high school all-Americans in the line and five others in the backfield has struggled to score 50 points during regulation play of four league games. That's a rate of 12.25 points per contest three of which were played at home.

When you can't muster the intensity or consistency to defend your home turf while playing before 107,000 ardent fans you lose more than home-field advantage. You lose the emotional support from from faithful legions who make great sacrifices just to get to the game. It's true fans can't appreciate the work that players put into preparing themselves for competition, but it's also true that players can't appreciate the efforts made by fans.

For instance: many Tennessee fans travel hundreds of miles and pay hundreds of dollars just to get in the stadium. Hotel rooms within walking distance of Neyland Stadium go for $200 a night. Tickets, meals, gas, souvenirs and concessions can easily run you another $500 for a two-night stay for two. Fans get to the game early to greet the team and stay in the rain to cheer for it. Some make the rugged trek to Neyland Stadium despite physical infirmities and many save their hard-earned vacation days just for football season.

Most players spend four years at Tennessee, but most fans follow the Vols for a lifetime. To them Shield-Watkins Field is sacred ground that has been consecrated through the years by cheers, tears, sweat and blood. Fans bring glory to the game through their adoration of the team. They don't expect applause or praise.

The only thing they ask in return is a team that will give as good as it gets. And the one thing they can't abide is an underachiever.


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