Better days are a'comin

Better days are a’comin in Knoxville

In the third installment of “A Look Back,” I explore weeks 9-12 of the college football season. I visit two proud programs who have recently fallen on hard times – Tennessee and Michigan, return to the Northeast to watch “The Biggest Little Game in America,” and head south to the modern-day capital of college football: The University of Alabama. Along the way, I witness the limits of fan loyalty at a shockingly empty Big House, the effects of winning on the city of Tuscaloosa, and the power of hope on the Tennessee community.

IMG_2432Week 9 – Alabama 34, Tennessee 20: From Mississippi, I drove north to Memphis and east to Knoxville. College football in East Tennessee is about as big as it gets. Drive fifty miles in any direction from campus, and you’ll find small towns cloaked in Tennessee orange. Nearly every non-Christian radio station is dedicated to Tennessee football coverage 365 days a year. The area code in the Knoxville area (865) even spells out VOL.

For Tennessee fans, the past seven years have been a nightmare. There are a few different places you could point to as the beginning of the dark ages, but the hiring of Lane Kiffin in late 2008 serves as a pretty could start. After calling Tennessee a dream job, Kiffin left Knoxville after just one year – a year in which he led the Vols to a 7-6 record. Kiffin’s departure to USC, which was announced in the middle of the night, led to such outrage in town that residents named a waste treatment facility in Kiffin’s “honor.” Tennessee hired Derek Dooley three days after Kiffin’s departure, but Dooley floundered his way to three straight losing seasons.

In 2012, Butch Jones replaced Dooley and hope for the future returned to Knoxville. Jones’ ‘brick by brick’ philosophy of rebuilding the program from the bottom up has been widely embraced, though as Offensive Coordinator Mike Bajakian told me, the honeymoon period only lasts so long before you have to win football games. Last year, Tennessee finished with a 5-7 record for the third year in a row, and the Vols entered the game against Alabama at 3-4 and struggling to stay in bowl contention.

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Now that students have returned home for the holidays and stadiums have shut down for the winter, I find myself looking back at my season in college football. In 16 weeks, I went to 19 games across 15 different states and 10 different conferences. Along the way, I met bricklayers and farmers, school teachers and CEOs, soldiers and local politicians. I sat in on radio shows, attended campus rallies, ate countless dining hall meals, and spent many a night in the back of my car. My goal was to explore college football’s place in America, to understand the game’s impact on our culture, and to, in turn, understand our culture’s impact on the game. In many ways you could look at my journey as a search to answer a simple question: why do people care about college football?

Each week, I wrote articles about the communities I visited, relating stories about the people I’d met and the culture I’d witnessed. Focused as I was on the present, I rarely had an opportunity to write about the places I’d left behind. But, as I traveled, I started to feel connections for these places. On Saturday afternoons, I’d find myself searching d3football.com for St. John’s score updates or scrolling through ESPN for previews on South Carolina, Texas, or Iowa.

In this article, I’m offering a week-by-week look back at trip – a summary of my destinations followed by a discussion of what happened to the team after I left. I hope you enjoy!

 

Week 1 – #21 Texas A&M 52, #9 South Carolina 28: The college football season began for me on a balmy Thursday night in Columbia, South Carolina. Coming off of three-straight 11-win seasons, the Gamecock faithful entered Williams-Brice stadium that night expecting big things. Folks I met talked about a berth in the SEC championship game as a minimum for success. Most were focused on a trip to the inaugural playoffs.

The 2014 season officially begins

The 2014 season officially begins

That night, I sat with a pair of freshmen – Sean and Deonte. They had each decided to come to South Carolina in part because of the opportunity to be a part of SEC football. They had grown up watching big games and had planned their visits to campus around football weekends. Before kickoff, they were as excited as I imagine they’ve ever been in their lives. They had to pinch themselves to believe their eyes – 82,000 screaming people, a top-10 ranked team, a nationally televised game – and they were a part of it. Unfortunately for my seatmates, their feelings of triumph were short-lived. Upstart Aggie Quarterback Kenny Hill ripped the South Carolina defense apart, throwing for 511 yards and three touchdowns en route to a resounding 52-28 victory.

As Sean and Deonte left that night, I wondered whether their visions of grandeur would ever come to fruition. South Carolina has never been a consistent national power. Maybe the Texas A&M game was a sign of things to come – a new normal of mediocrity.

As it turned out, the loss to Texas A&M was the first in a series of disappointments for the Gamecocks. After three straight wins, including a thrilling 38-35 victory over then-number 6 Georgia, South Carolina lost four of their next five games. An overtime win over a subpar Florida team and a victory over South Alabama made the Gamecocks bowl eligible, but a season-ending defeat at rival Clemson solidified a sense that this was a down year in Columbia.

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