I hate to open with an apology, but:
The following memory is not dredged up lightly. There is a point.
In the first week of December 2001, Tennessee football was on the threshold of greatness. Victorious in The Swamp, it was on to Atlanta to clinch a spot in the Rose Bowl to play for a second national title in four years.
Well, you know how that turned out.
The Vols haven't been back on the threshold of greatness since.
Nine seasons have passed since that night in the Georgia Dome when so many Tennessee dreams were dashed in a 31-20 loss to LSU. As the 2011 opener bears down, it's appropriate to gauge Tennessee's place in the fluid spectrum of college football.
And what is Tennessee's place?
Clemson, more or less.
Or, if you prefer, maybe Louisville, BYU or Georgia Tech.
In the span of 2002-2010, the Vols have compiled a 70-45 record. No SEC crowns; two bowl wins; three coaches.
Three other FBS schools also check in at 70 wins: Louisville, BYU and Georgia Tech. Clemson is 69-46.
Others in the vicinity are Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and South Florida with 68 wins each. Michigan, Fresno State and Oklahoma State have 71.
California and Navy — yes, Navy — have 72 wins.
It's been a terrific nine years to be a Boise State fan. The Broncos are 106-12, best in the FBS. Ohio State and Southern Cal are next at 99 wins, followed by Oklahoma (98), Texas (95) and TCU (92).
LSU tops the SEC at 92-26. Florida and Georgia are in lock step at 88-30.
While Tennessee no longer inhabits the high-rent district, the Vols are still solidly middle class, ahead of erstwhile aristocrats Notre Dame (64 wins), Michigan State (59), UCLA (58) or Texas A&M (57).
As for yardsticks to measure UT's relative status, Louisville and Cincinnati seem less comparable since both began the time frame in Conference USA. Ditto for South Florida.
However, Louisville and Cincinnati have played in BCS bowls since moving to the Big East. Tennessee's most recent BCS bowl was 1999.
The Vols and Michigan, two proud programs who enjoyed the '90s more than the 21st Century, are neck-and-neck, the Wolverines one win ahead.
Michigan fans have at least enjoyed three pilgrimages to the Rose Bowl, the Mecca of Big Ten football seasons. Yeah, they lost all three, but at least they got there.
UT fans have celebrated — uh, make that observed — bowl season in Atlanta three times (0-for-3).
There were two other failed trips to the Georgia Dome for the 2004 and 2007 SEC championship games.
Would you rather be a Georgia Tech fan? A 70-47 record includes a dismal 2-7 bowl ledger, but there was one BCS Bowl.
Or how about Cal, at 72-42? No Pac-10 titles, but a 5-2 bowl record.
BYU, maybe, at 70-42 with a 4-2 bowl mark? That includes multiple trips to the Las Vegas Bowl, which I'm guessing is an underutilized destination by a largely Mormon fan base.
I keep coming back to Clemson as Tennessee's fellow traveler through the near-decade.
The Tigers didn't have any 10-win seasons (UT had three) but they didn't have any five-win seasons either (UT had two). Clemson reached the ACC title game once, but came up empty.
The Vols are 2-5 in bowl games during our survey, Clemson 3-4. The difference?
Clemson's 27-14 Peach Bowl win over UT in 2003.
Both programs were 6-7 last year. Both have to deal with the fact that Steve Spurrier has South Carolina on a roll.
Like it or not, there's a lot of common ground since December 2001. This comparison really is oranges and oranges.