It was a long way down

The farther you fall, the more painful the landing.

That's why Tennessee football fans are still wailing and gnashing their teeth in the wake of Saturday's 19-15 Game 2 loss to UCLA. The Vols' 63-7 Game 1 blowout of Western Kentucky elevated the hopes of the Big Orange Nation to stratospheric levels. As a result, the return to reality turned out to be a crash landing.

Certainly, losing games it should win is nothing new at Tennessee. The Vols dropped several of those during the previous four seasons. Losing games at home is nothing new to Tennessee, either. Between 2005 and 2008 the sanctity of Neyland Stadium was compromised by Georgia, LSU, Alabama (twice), Florida (twice), South Carolina ... even by Vanderbilt and Wyoming.

So, why has the home-field loss to UCLA sent normally stable people racing to the liquor cabinet for emotional reinforcement?

In a word ... expectations. They plummeted to low levels during the final years of Phillip Fulmer's tenure. Vol fans expected to lose to Florida. They expected to lose to Alabama. They expected to suffer an occasional upset loss. They expected to subdue inferior foes by modest margins. They expected to earn a mid-level bowl bid and finish outside the national top 10 each year.

Ultimately, fans grew bored with the sameness under Fulmer. Excitement gave way to apathy. That's why a guy with a 152-52 record was shown the door. Fulmer came to be viewed as a good coach who would never return the program to greatness.

Lane Kiffin, by comparison, was viewed as an unknown quantity who MIGHT return the program to greatness. Fans understood that he inherited a down program when he took the Vol reins last Dec. 1 but their optimism flickered when he signed a top-10 recruiting class. That flicker became a full-fledged wildfire when his first game as head coach produced 657 yards of offense and a smashing 56-point victory.

All of a sudden, many fans figured all of Tennessee's shortcomings had been fixed. Overnight, the Vols appeared capable of giving Florida a stern test in The Swamp, holding serve at home, winning 10 games and cracking the top 20.

Tennessee fans were daring to dream again ... until Saturday's listless loss to UCLA shattered that dream. And that's why there is so much wailing and gnashing of teeth throughout Big Orange Country two days later.


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