My time in college has been marked by hardships for my favorite football teams. The Tennessee football team is up and down, while the Georgia Southern team is just down. However, this past Saturday offered a clear, concise view of the difference in the two programs. I'll start with Tennessee vs. Vanderbilt.
Coming off an awful campaign last year following the awful hire of Dave Clawson, the Tennessee Vols were picked to finish no higher than 4th or 5th in the SEC East, and were ruled out of bowl contention almost from the get-go. The early season had its ups and downs, and, coming off of the blowout loss to Ole Miss, Tennessee needed a win to become bowl-eligible. The hire of Lane Kiffin was maligned as a rushed decision, just a symptom of the lost time Tennessee had on the recruiting trail. Many questioned his accomplishments and record as a head coach, and few believed his boasting and braying about bringing championships to KNoxville.
The game was marked by terrrible officiating and an excruciating near-interception by Eric Berry that would have broken the record for interception return yards as EB would havve taken it to the house. However, after an atrocious pass interference call gave Vanderbilt a new set of downs with goal to go, Tennessee stepped up its game. Following an amazing open field tackle by freshman sub Stephaun Raines and walk-on Shane Reveiz, weak-kneed Senior Wes Brown caused an intentional grounding that forced Vanderbilt to settle for a field to make the score 24-16. A few minutes later, Brown electrified Neyland Stadium with a play that Vol fans will talk about for years to come.
Vanderbilt QB MacKenzi Adams was forced out of the pocket and wrapped up by Chris "Unblockable" Walker. Trying to make something happen, Adams flung the ball to... Wes Brown. With a shoelace catch, only two Commodores stood between Brown and paydirt. Brown start chugging for the checkerboard, wrapping the football tight to his barrel-chest. One Commodore, an offensive linemen took himself out of the play with a bad angle. But VU freshman standout Warren Norman, who had broken Hershel Walker's freshman all-purpose yards record earlier in the night, had the speed to catch Brown. As Brown crossed the Vandy 10-yard line, Norman launched into the air and latched onto Brown's back. Without a good grip, he slipped down so that his arms strained to encircle Brown's hips. The determined Brown dragged Norman the last 15 or so feet and then it was his turn to launch into the air. As Brown fell into the end zone, Neyland Stadium exploded, the crowd envigorated by Brown's efforts to finally score a touchdown as a Volunteer. The entire defense piled on top of Brown, celebrating his assuredly painful and glorious score.
Head Coach Lane Kiffin ran down the sidelines as the play developed, hoping to help keep Brown's knees from failing as he trudged towards the hallowed orange and white checkerboard. In his exuberance, Kiffin blindsided Vol QB Jonathan Crompton, and later joked that Crompton "is on this week's injury report." Somehow, Neyland Stadium contained the immense energy released by this play, and the atmosphere after the final gun sounded was nothing short of electric. Players hung around on the field afterwards, seemingly held there by the magic they had witnessed just minutes before. The parents of the seniors proudly held their progeny, celebrating a happy ending to a decidedly melancholic tenure at Tennessee. Kiffin sarcastically thanked the SEC comissioner for the pass interfernce call leading to the Raines-Reveiz collusion and the Brown sack, stating "Mr. Slive...thank you for that call." Later this week, Kiffin announced more good news: Janzen Jackson, recently free of any charges stemming from an incident two weeks previous, was coming back to the team, and would practice and start the next game at Kentucky. A good week for any Volunteer.
The situation at Georgia Southern was remarkably similar. After the awful hire of Brian Van Gorder, currently the DC of the Atlanta Falcons, Georgia Southern made the snap decision to hire Chris Hatcher, coach of Div II Valdosta State, already with a DII title under his belt. He vowed to "keep all the Traditions and Lore of Georgia Southern Football." Reversing the mistake of his predecessors, Hatcher reached out to Erk Russell, attempting to bring him back to talking terms with the program. He also reverted to the traditions established by Coach Russell, hoping to also revert to the tradition of winning football in Statesboro.
However, his pass-happy offense did not fit the hodge-podge of triple option and pro style offensive players available on the roster, and the defense was also a mess. Hatcher led the team to a 13-9 record the first two years, bringing hope that the team would begin to produce SoCon championships and hopefully a few FCS Crowns. However, things did not according to plan, and the Eagles came into the final game of the season on a three game losing streak with a record of 4-6. The GSU seniors, with a record of 20-23, had no shot at a winning career record, but they played for pride, and played hard. In a defensive struggle, GSU prevailed 13-6, behind a strong defensive effort producing several turnovers.
Shortly after the game, with the Southern Pride marching band performing out the victory hymn "It is Well with my Soul," and Hatcher celebrating with his seniors, GSU Athletic Director Sam Baker came over and informed Hatcher that his contract would not be renewed for the next year. Hours later, Baker announced publicly that same decision and put to rest any notion that he has a shred of class or intelligence. Instead of ending on a high note, the Eagle seniors were left looking over thier shoulders at the teammates they left behind, knowing all too well what awaits them. The tension of a coaching search, the boos that echoed throughout Paulson just a week earlier during a Homecoming loss to perennial doormat Samford, the unease that comes with a coach bringing in new offensive and defensive schemes. Those 17 seniors, who led 42 freshmen, 37 sophomores and just 12 juniors onto the field were now leaving them at the mercy of the fumbling Baker, whose football knowledge amounts to how much money the university pulls in at the gate and how many tickets need to be sold to move to Division I, FBS.
The seniors at Tennessee face a stiff challenge in Lexington this weekend, with a possible January 1st bowl on the line, hoping just to play another game in the Orange and White. The Georgia Southern seniors face demoralizing self-doubt and must live through various "what-if" scenarios that would have vastly changed their fortunes. Without much hope for the future, the gray, cold winter seems endlessly long and terminally bleak, but they must look past their fears, their doubt, and their perceived shortcomings and remember that the night is always darkest before the dawn. GATA Eagles, don't give up.