the hangover, week eleven: Leaving Knox Vegas

IN WHICH a 41-year-old Commodore supporter learns that whenever we beat the Vols two years in a row, he blubbers like a sorority girl at an engagement candle-lighting.

Hope is the drug.

Hope is more dangerous than whiskey and car keys. Hope leads to poor decision making and sudden shocks when reality breaks through. And yet, when hope pays off, the high is unlike anything on Earth.

It went like last week, but the other way round - instead of clinging to a tenuous lead, we were doggedly hanging on down three, waiting for a chance, waiting for a break, and hoping against hope that we'd get the chance. And in the dying minutes of the game, a twelve play drive, ninety-two yards, featuring heroic effort from seniors and rookies alike plus that rarest of things: a terrible call that actually got corrected before it could screw us out of a win.

Because make no mistake, had that horrifically bad spot been let to stand, the Vols could have knelt on the ball three times, and a three point home win in a terrible slopfest of a game would have been spun into "THATS WHY YOUR VANDY" [sic] and "NORMAL SERVICE NAS BEEN RESTORED". Brandon at Team Speed Kills said on Saturday that he kind of felt like the point spread was about the names on the front of the jerseys instead of the teams themselves, and I agree wholeheartedly: that was a game that Tennessee expected to win simply by virtue of being Tennessee.

Unfortunately for the Vols, that's simply not enough to deliver them an automatic win over Vanderbilt anymore.

Some bad turnovers in this game. Some bad calls in this game. We committed the cardinal sin of SEC sports by leaving it close enough for the officiating to matter. Some bad injuries in this game, which - coupled with another spin on WHEEL! OF! TARGETING! - left us without a single starter in the defensive secondary. No Azubike, lost Jelks, a heartbreaking fumble by JMatt of all guys, a lucky bank shot off the crossbar to give them the lead. So many places where people would expect Same Old Vandy to lay down and die.

We don't do that any more.

We get sixty minutes, and if we have to use them all, so be it. If we have to score the winning points at 59:44, all right, we can wait. Honestly, the first-down spot was the only time I despaired all night, because I knew this was a team that could make that drive, ever since opening night against Ole Miss - but it would be just our luck to get shafted on the spot of the ball and have the win literally handed to the Vols. And when Joe Fisher and John Gromos couldn't stop saying what a horrible spot it was and they had to challenge this, I was convinced we were going to take it in the shorts again.

But they got it right eventually, and we got our chance, and we took it, and we made the best of it. And a team that lost its greatest running back ever, a team that lost difference-makers in all three phases of the game, a team that was projected by many to miss a winning record altogether - that team is exactly where it was last year, 7-4 with a win over Tennessee and a chance to again tie our best regular-season record in decades next week. There's still a chance for nine wins. We've never won nine games in back to back seasons. But until Saturday night, we didn't have back to back wins against UT since 1926.

(You know, we were really something before radio.)

(seriously, four straight losing seasons has to be bad enough for UT, but to be the first ones to lose to Vandy TWICE since Oak Ridge was a federal secret? That's gotta sting.)

I refer to it all the time, but I'm going for it one more time, referring to my own expectations for this program:

Season four: not less than 7 wins AND a bowl bid outside the 615 area code.

Season five: all of season four PLUS at least one big-ticket win over the Penitentiary of Tennessee, or some big-ticket foe like Florida or Alabama that we haven’t beaten in years.

Uh, we're there, guys. Big ticket win? We beat Georgia AND Florida (IN THE SWAMP) AND Tennessee (IN NEYLAND AND A SECOND STRAIGHT YEAR) and we're already on 7 wins and will almost certainly be headed out of town for a bowl, if only to Memphis again. The things I thought we needed to do to turn this program around on a five year schedule are done with two seasons to spare. And if we only manage to bring down Jeff Scott, we're looking at a very real chance at our first 10-win season, ever, in a year that so many thought was a down year.

Things have changed. This is definitely not your father's Vanderbilt. It's not your grandfather's. But it might just be your great-grandfather's...and best of all, it's ours.

Welcome, my friends, to the New Age.

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