If a college football fan can't be optimistic at this time of year, there's no hope.
Preseason practice has been under way just long enough for every team's virtues to be magnified. If a coach singles out a player's performance in a scrimmage, a fan's imagination can raise the compliment to an all-conference level.
Preseason is the time for optimism in any sport. But in college football, there's more time for optimism.
The SEC is the best example of that. It stages its football media days the second-to-last week in July. While that qualifies as a kickoff of sorts, it still leaves you with six weeks before an actual game.
No wonder the impact of every positive critique is multiplied. And that's not true just for fans.
Every year about this time, I'm tempted to add another victory to my UT prediction.
Since last season, six or seven victories have been the most logical estimate for 2011. But eight doesn't seem nearly as unrealistic as it did in February — or even before last week.
You think fans didn't get pumped up when they saw that true freshman linebackers Curt Maggitt and A.J. Johnson were running with the first team in UT's first scrimmage last Tuesday. Suddenly, a supposed position of weakness seemed better fortified.
Fans also had to be encouraged by another depth-chart move. Alex Bullard, a transfer from Notre Dame, was starting at offensive guard by the end of the week.
UT's offensive line was reasonably well-manned before the influx of new players. Six players with starting experience returned.
Now you have Bullard at least temporarily taking a starting position. On the preseason depth chart, freshman guard Marcus Jackson was listed as a co-starter at the same position. And don't forget about heralded freshman offensive lineman Antonio Richardson, who has been limited in preseason while recovering from shoulder surgery.
The development of depth in the offensive line and the emergence of freshman linebackers at a position of need aren't just cause for optimism about the 2011 season.
This might be the last thing you want to hear a few weeks from the start of a new season, but I can't resist: Wait till next year.
I'm not writing off Tennessee's 2011 season. I'm pointing out progress.
When was the last time Tennessee fans could say with any degree of confidence: "Wait till next season"?
I didn't hear it a lot after the 5-7 season of 2008. And it wasn't exactly a rallying cry after the 7-6 season of 2009, either.
Even last year when the Vols finished 6-7, fans realized their 2011 team would be too young and inexperienced to win a championship.
This view is much different from this vantage point. You almost can see the Power T at the end of the tunnel.
The Vols now have one senior starter on offense and two on defense. Translation: They should be capable of winning the SEC East next season.
In the meantime, Vols fans can enjoy what's left of their ride through the tunnel.