What would a win at Tennessee mean to the perception of 2010? It depends on who you ask.
CINCINNATI - Butch Jones doesn't often pause before snapping off answers. He knows what he wants to say and how he wants to say it.Only, for a few moments, as this question held in the air, Jones held an extended pause and unearthed a smirk while contemplating the answer.
Could a win at Tennessee erase the memory of 4-8?
"That's a good question," Jones said.
It's one the Bearcats will happily find out the answer to should they escape Knoxville victorious.
Suppressing the stench of a season which squashed momentum of a program that rose from rubble to back-to-back BCS bowl games would seem to take more than a squirt of Orange-scented Febreeze. Yet, in the what-have-you-done-for-me-tomorrow world of college football, perception can change that easily. In a matter of three-and-a-half hours, the conversation alters from, "UC: The program that has fallen off since Brian Kelly left" to, "UC: An elite Big East program that took a brief transition year dip."
The difference is clearer than orange and black.
Few opportunities exist to make such a profound and over-reaching statement. Few times when toiling in the disrespected Big East can you hold the nation's attention. Even fewer times can you do so with a talented, experienced senior quarterback. For a program looking to eject the sour taste from 2010, there is no easier method than a win in SEC country.
"I don't think any win can erase," Jones said. "It's a new season; 4-8 did not meet our expectations. But, I think we learned a lot from it. It helped build a foundation."
Flipping that foundation into a victory at Tennessee makes the frustration of 2010 more palatable.
"It's instant credibility," Jones said.
So, the answer to the initial question lies in who is being asked. Outside the walls of the UC locker room, the answer is probably yes. A win would change the conversation. Pundits and, more importantly, recruits would view UC differently. The Bearcats would again be sitting at the popular lunch table in the recruiting cafeteria.
Inside the walls of UC, though?
"I think as a team we have already erased 4-8," Drew Frey said. "That was the 2010 season. This is 2011. We have already let that go."
The Bearcats don't have time for the big picture. Not right now. Contemplating the overlying program ramifications of a win against Tennessee obstructs the view of Tennessee's 4-3 fire zone blitz.
Jones preaches every snap, every practice, every game grabbing the team's focus.
For some players, that's where the disconnect lies. A 4-8 record feels like decades ago to them. They don't view themselves in that light anymore because of so many nights spent working in the dark shadows.
"(Winning) would be a big thing, at the same time the fans don't see what we actually do," WR DJ Woods said. "They just see wins and losses, they don't know what we do behind closed doors. They don't know how close we are as a family."
Woods went on to say he's not disrespecting the UC fans, but only commenting that the Bearcats inside the program have already moved on. The concept of erasing a season in their head was Step 1. Beating Tennessee is somewhere around Step 248.
Perhaps the media types circling Nippert and Neyland Stadiums this week make too much of the big-picture story here. Perhaps the only profound effect this conversation has is moving the sports talk show needle.
"It is a big deal, at the same time you can't look at it like the media," Woods said. "They take one little thing and want to make a huge story out of it. For us, this is just a game for us. We focus on what we want to do and our focus is Tennessee."
A deeper goal within the journey to erase 4-8 is returning to winning big games on big stages. On big stages in Fresno, Raleigh and Morgantown last season, UC didn't put forth the desired representation of the program.
To do so Saturday would be the ultimate separation from last year. While the Bearcats players have moved on in their heads, doing so in the win column would make it all but official.
"We are forgetting about last season but it is still in the back of your mind sometimes because we are embarrassed about it," Zach Collaros said. "It would be huge for the team and the program. It would be a big burst."
No, these players can't completely forget 4-8. But what remains of it definitely drives the game plan to sweep it further under the rug.
"I don't think anything erases 4-8," Derek Wolfe said. "We just have to work every day to redeem ourselves. That's the way I am taking it, one little step at a time. We are all confident. We are all ready to play. We are ready to go win. We are not going down there to settle for anything less than a win."
And whatever else comes with it.