In 1998, Tennessee was the best team in college football.
Fourteen years, four losing seasons, three head coaches and sixty-two losses later, the fan base of the once-nationally prominent program finds itself cheering for a team that has not been ranked since September 1, 2008.
Attendance has waned over the past several years, with the average falling below 100,000 in 2009 and not passing that benchmark since then. While declining attendance numbers can in part be attributed to a reduction of the capacity of Neyland Stadium, some of it is derived from fans simply not filling seats.
In the grand scheme of things, however, these declines in attendance are in terms of single digit percentage points, and most fans verify that while they are weary of the team's recent struggles, they are faithful to their team and hopeful that UT make a turnaround. It appears this trend has carried into 2012. Despite last year's disappointing season, the Tennessee faithful remain optimistic, albeit realistic, about their hopes for the Vols' 2012 season.
John Cortese, undecided freshman, assessed the whole season.
"I think at worst UT will go 6-6 this year; however, I think they are capable of going 9-3 and going to a bowl game," Cortese said. "I'm open to being pleasantly surprised against Alabama, though my hopes are kind of thin... I think South Carolina will be our toughest SEC opponent next to Alabama."
His views on Alabama echo a common theme among the fans — an exceedingly thin hope of beating, or in some cases even competing with, the Crimson Tide.
John Pickering, undecided freshman, first said he hoped to win a national championship, but he soon downgraded to a more attainable hope of having no injuries and beating Florida.
"Last year, injuries killed us," he explained. "If we can stay healthy this year we'll do a lot better."
The most notable injuries of last season were quarterback Tyler Bray's broken thumb in the Georgia game, which knocked him out of play for 5 games, and wide receiver Justin Hunter's torn ACL in the Florida game, which ended his season. On the defensive side of the ball, the Vols lost safety Brent Brewer to a season-ending ACL injury. There is no doubt these losses had a detrimental impact on Tennessee's thin depth chart last year, and comparable injuries this year would have a similar, but hopefully less severe, impact.
Tennessee already began the season having to replace starter and pre-season All-SEC wide receiver Da'Rick Rogers, who was suspended indefinitely for violation of team rules. Highly-rated junior college transfer Cordarrelle Patterson posted an impressive 165 total yards and two touchdowns in Tennessee's victory over N.C. State on Friday, hinting that he may be able to fill Rogers' place. The fans already seem to love Patterson.
"I definitely think C.P. can replace Da'Rick Rogers," said John Pickering. "Even based on just the first game we saw him blow right past 'All-American Amerson'."
The wide receiver tandem of Patterson and Justin Hunter have got fans even more excited.
"Having Justin Hunter," Pickering explained, "means that Hunter and Patterson will be able to take the heat off each other, and whoever is more open will be able to make something happen."
Evan Eisenbeis, freshman with pre-professional interests, was less optimistic about UT's upcoming season.
"I hope they win, but based on last year, I'm not very hopeful," Eisenbeis said.
UT went 5-7 last year, ending the season with a loss to Kentucky that Derek Dooley described as a "real bad ending to a real bad season." This has left a sour taste in the mouths of fans, who hope for improvement, but may be too frustrated to expect it.
"My hope for this year is that Tyler Bray develops into the quarterback that everyone says he is," said Thad Cole, senior in nuclear engineering.
Bray, highly touted by many, has still never started a full season at UT, nor beaten a reputable SEC opponent. He has proven that he can put up astounding numbers against unranked teams, but this year he has a chance to prove to the fans and to the world that he can grind out close ones with the giants of college football.
Bray had a good start last Friday, throwing 333 yards against an N.C. State team that had among its impressive secondary the pre-season All-American corner David Amerson. The Vols' victory against N.C. State — their first in the Georgia Dome since 1998 — has electrified an optimistic fan base, and the fans hope this optimism will be built upon by the team.
"With a win in the opener vs. N.C. State," Cortese said, "I think they will have enough momentum and confidence going forward that they will beat Florida for the first time in 8 years."
Cortese pinpoints what seems to be a common hope for fans — a long awaited victory over Florida. Florida is coming off of a rocky 7-6 season under new coach Will Muschamp, and his team was given a serious scare from Bowling Green in their season opener.
They led the MAC lightweight by only three at the end of the third quarter, and had Bowling Green made two missed field goals, Florida would have gone into the fourth quarter down by three instead of up by three. The Gators were penalized 14 times for 106 yards, and they allowed Bowling Green to rack up 22 first downs and 337 yards on the Gators' home field. Bowling Green had two drives that yielded touchdowns and two that yielded missed field goals.
The Gators will visit Knoxville on September 15, and Neyland Stadium will likely have a feeling of optimism that hasn't been seen for quite some time. It has been eight years since UT last beat Florida, who boasts two national championships and a Heisman trophy winner in that seven-season span.
"I hope we finally beat Florida because we haven't beaten them while I've been here," said Cole.