Any longtime Tennessean can confirm that one of the distinct privileges of living in our great state is hearing our rustic and venerable lieutenant governor, John Wilder, philosophize about the nature of government. When it comes to meandering across a landscape, not even the Tennessee River can surpass him. Imagine the old derby-wearing Western character actor Dub Taylor, illuminated by about six dry martinis, attempting to recite whole scenes from Othello, and you’ll have an approximation of Wilder’s hard-to-follow, impossible-to-duplicate oratorical style.
Appreciative audiences, however, don’t seem to mind the lazy flow, the unpredictable turns in course, and the brain-sucking verbal eddies of Wilder’s musings. In particular, they eagerly anticipate the ending that they already know is coming. It’s a summation of Wilder’s view of our nation’s system of divided powers: “State gubma guhd. Fed gubma ba-ad.”
From one year to the next, especially when Wilder is addressing a business audience, the news is always the same: “Tencee gubma guh; Unca Sam”here he’ll begin shaking his head slowly, as if contemplating an utter incorrigible“ba-a-ad.” But it still somehow rouses the crowd.
Now that football season has snuck upon us once again, and fans can again contemplate, in earnest, the likely fortunes of the state’s two SEC teams, Wilder’s well-traveled old mantra somehow comes to mind. Things are pretty much like always, he’d tell us: “Tencee... guhd. Vambilt” (he shakes his head)...“ba-ad.”
The only debatable questions, really, are: How guh? How ba-ad? For Tennessee, things look realrealguhso chirpy, in fact, that even Sports Illustrated has joined orange bleeders in invoking the holy year of 1951, when the Vols last won the mythical national championship. Meanwhile, if you’ve seen Trainspotting, and you kept your eyes uncovered during the scene in which the junkie dives into the vilest, most gag-inducing toilet in Scotland, you can conceive the very ugly season that very possibly awaits Vanderbilt.
At this point, of course, before a single down of football has been played by either team, most predictions count for about as much as a fistful of rubles. But there is already genuine reason for joy in Knoxville, and ample reason to believe that the Commodores’ ship will go glugging faster than the Lusitania.
Ever since last December, Vol fans have been awaiting this season with all the ardor of so many pre-millenialists who’ve detected signs of the impending Rapture. This is the season when Smoky will reach the promised land. This is the year when the pass-slinging messiah, Peyton, son of Archie, will come into his glory. If all this sounds a little sacrilegious to you, then you haven’t seen the reverence that attends every move the younger Manning makes.
Of course, there are reasons to regard Peyton Manning with a certain degree of awe. In his case, the hype and ballyhoo are not just eminently believable. They may even be an understatement of his abilities.
Manning’s presence elevates Tennessee from a Top 10 teamthe Vols have already been there, done thatto one that can aspire to claim the No. 1 ranking when the last poll is published. As one observer gushed, Florida’s Danny Wuerffel is a good collegiate quarterback; Peyton Manning (as a mere baby-faced junior) is a good pro quarterback.
Except for the facts that he doesn’t possess Michael Johnson’s speed and that he doesn’t speak six languages fluently, Peyton might be regarded as pretty near perfect. He unfailingly addresses his elders as “sir” or “ma’am.” He’s utterly, relentlessly focused on his work, both in class and on the field. Thanks to off-season weight training, he can practically bench-press a team of oxen.
All condescending snorts from intellectually smug Vandylanders notwithstanding, the Vols also have in Manning perhaps the smartest player in the SEC. He understands defenses better even than some coaches, and, in a stunning reversal for football players, his study notes are fawned over and coveted by his classmates.
Among those media wizards much in need of a life, the sort of people for whom such speculation has become a cottage industry, Manning is the favorite to receive this year’s Heisman Trophy. Whether he wins it or not, though, there’s little doubt that he is the one player who can bring truth to the old high-school cheer: “Peyton, Peyton, he’s our man. If he can’t do it, no one can!”
At Vanderbilt, it’s looking more and more like no one can. Not this year, anyhow. In Rod Dowhower’s second season, the Commodore program remains tangled in paradoxes.
Most bottom-feeding teams can score prodigiously but offer only token resistance to opposing offenses. Not Vandy. Again this season, the ’Dores will possess a more than respectable defense. Yet, in spite of Dowhower’s gifts on the other side of the ball, the Vanderbilt offense looks again to be as inert as Junior Samples after Thanksgiving dinner.
In fact, the offense could be regressing. Unlike last year, the Commodores have no experienced running backsalthough they may actually add a pass-catching dimension to the backfield with the departure of granite-handed Jermaine Johnson. Little real help appears to be forthcoming from the receivers. Despite Dowhower’s reputation as a developer of quarterbacks, Vandy failed to sign any notable players at that position. Meanwhile, one starting offensive lineman is out for medical reasons, while anotherperhaps the team’s bestfaces the possibility of criminal charges. All of which could leave Vandy with a lot of Saturdays this season much like their last outing, in Knoxville, when the defense played well enough to win, while the offense sputtered and pinged as if someone had dumped sugar in the gas tank.
And yet, for some odd reason that flummoxes your Big Media Types, football teams stubbornly refuse to conform to the stations assigned to them in the preseason. The ba-ad ones don’t always roll over on cue, while the guhd sometimes turn both bad and ugly.
So while Vandy’s squad may not measure up even to last year’s punchless outfit, they might actually improve on last year’s two lonesome victories. And while the Vols appear to be the anointed ones, with Peyton on their side and all their most difficult tests at home, they haven’t exactly whupped Florida (or anyone else) yet. Instead of carting off the big silver cup, UT could just as easily settle for 9-2 or 8-3 and another shot of Citrus if they succumb to one of football’s most persistent maladies: Team guhd, luck ba-ad.
With all these caveats in mind, here’s our best dart-at-the-wall assessment of what lies ahead:
How it looks from the La-z-Boy
Notre Dame 31, Vanderbilt 6
Alabama 24, Vanderbilt 7
Vanderbilt 17, Mississippi 14
LSU 34, Vanderbilt 10
Vanderbilt 20, North Texas 10
Georgia 31, Vanderbilt 16
South Carolina 20, Vanderbilt 14
Vanderbilt 30, UAB 7
Florida 45, Vanderbilt 17
Kentucky 17, Vanderbilt 13
Tennessee 52, Vanderbilt 12
Tennessee 48, UNLV 10
Tennessee 34, UCLA 20
Florida 41, Tennessee 38
Tennessee 56, Mississippi 10
Tennessee 30, Georgia 20
Tennessee 24, Alabama 13
Tennessee 23, South Carolina 20
Tennessee 51, Memphis 13
Tennessee 42, Arkansas 17
Tennessee 52, Kentucky 6