After Tennessee's 34-32 win over Florida last Saturday, Vols coach Phillip Fulmer said he felt like the 70 people aboard the team's plane to Gainesville were the only ones in the country who thought they could win.
It seemed logical enough, though, for most of us media guys - myself included - to find reasons why Tennessee couldn't do it. There was no way. Not this year.
Not with a national title shot assuredly waiting Florida. Not with UF quarterback and Heisman Trophy candidate Rex Grossman firing at will on a secondary that had been much-maligned and banged-up in the second half of the season. Not with the mind-boggling hex coach Steve Spurrier and the Gators had force-fed Tennessee for the past seven meetings over three decades.
After all, the famed Florida "Swamp" had devoured so many teams, players and dreams in the past. Surely it would feast on the Vols and their young quarterback, Casey Clausen, in the biggest game of his life to date.
Turns out the rowdy reptilian contingent had nothing to swallow but its own pride. And subsequently this reporter could do nothing but the same.
I picked Florida to win 38-27, and while I have no regrets about my pick, I failed to take note that in selecting the Gators, I overlooked something.
The heart of a Volunteer.
My mind bypassed defensive end Will Overstreet. The captain slaved for four years, not concerned with the hype and glory his other teammates received on the defensive line. All he wanted to do was win. All he did was win. I didn't know if he was going to hug me or kill me when our eyes and paths met at the 50-yard line after the game, but the state of part-shock, part-elation on his face pretty much said it all.
I should have known better after hearing defensive tackle John Henderson at last week's team press conference. He sounded like he wanted to eat selected members of the media when he growled that he was hungry for Florida. Last Saturday and the two games that will follow are the reason Henderson passed up being a top-5 pick in last year's NFL Draft. He wanted a shot at the national championship, the one he missed out on in '98, and now he's getting that chance.
I failed to think of a guy like tailback Travis Stephens. Stephens, who only needs 11 yards to set the UT single-season record for rushing yards, worked selflessly all season and pushed team goals far ahead of his own agenda. Everyone barked last week about respect on the field. Stephens has nothing but that from me for what he does on and off the playing surface. He is the personification of determination and humility, and 226 yards against Florida spelled that out pretty clearly. He's forced his critics - who have chided him all season about his 5-foot-9, 190-pound frame - to eat their words as an appetizer, a salad and then, last week against Florida, as a 50-ounce steak with a side of fries.
And a coke.
Above those seniors, though, there's Clausen.
To be honest, I just straight up didn't believe in the low-toned, fast-talker from California.
I'd seen him fold as a freshman in the Cotton Bowl. I'd watched him ease out to a slow start this season. I'd seen him get better this fall, but not improve enough to tackle the most hostile of environments as a sophomore.
Once more, those wonderful little words that aren't often audibly heard roll off my tongue. I was wrong.
And I'm not afraid to say Clausen proved me quite incorrect.
His numbers weren't gaudy - 17-of-25 for 168 yards, one touchdown, two interceptions - but Clausen was the field general the Vols needed to win in Gainesville. Peyton Manning said he was going to be the one to do so a couple of weeks ago. Manning was right. I was wrong.
And while I am phasing myself out of the predictions business, I have but one more prognostication.
Clausen will be the reason why Tennessee will play in the Rose Bowl against Miami.
He obviously isn't bothered by raucous situations, so why should the neutral Georgia Dome against a team he's already beaten with his arm (Clausen had 256 yards to Kelley Washington alone when the teams met on Sept. 29) get to him?
Ultimately, this kid wants to go home. Don't stand between a college kid and a homesick pilgrimage. A straw poll of the university's residence halls will tell you that one.
In the end, will those four gargantuan hearts be enough to propel the Vols to a national championship? I don't know. That's a prediction I'm going to stay away from. But I do know one thing.
I sure wouldn't bet against them.