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Are the Vols Over the Hump?

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As Saturday’s Tennessee-South Carolina game entered the fourth quarter, it had the distinct feel of one we’d seen a time or two already this year. The upstart Vols show a nationally-televised audience that they’re much improved, that they’ve added a lot of talent to the roster, but that they’re still a play or two away from being able to close the deal.

The type of game that features commentators who pay homage to Butch Jones and his staff as they urge Vol Nation to be patient for the better days which are surely coming. The type of game that convinces many the tide continues to turn. The type of game that convinces others it’s not turning quickly enough.

How many times have we seen it this year? The Vols raising eyebrows yet failing to raise the number in the win column. Oklahoma. Georgia. Alabama. So when Brandon Wilds scampered 70 yards for the touchdown that put the Gamecocks up by 14 with under five minutes to go in regulation, it sure seemed like South Carolina would be the next team added to the list.

Better than the other list Team 118 has been compiling, right? The “utterly disappointing” list. Florida was the first to appear on that scroll, then along came Ole Miss and even lowly UT Chattanooga, as each of those games left the faithful wondering if UT was really as close as many believed them to be.

Which is essentially the prison sentence Vol fans have been serving since 2010. Prisoners of hope who vacillate between the promise of the future and the pain of the present.

The start of the Derek Dooley era was filled with far more pain than promise, however. Early season home losses to Oregon and Florida by a combined 49 points served notice of that. But Double D’s teams would tease Vol Nation with promise as well. Most notably in Death Valley when the Vols thought they had knocked off No. 12 LSU. Although they hadn’t, the near miss suggested to many that UT would be back soon.

Or would they? They lost their next three, all SEC games, by a combined 72 points and in so doing ushered in a painful reality: there would be no magic elixir to return the football program to the days or yore. Especially in the defection-laden wake of Lane Kiffin’s one-and-done.

But just when that reality was sinking in, along came freshman quarterback Tyler Bray who led the Vols to four straight wins, three of them against SEC opponents. While the run that November may have been memorable, the bowl game it led to was anything but. Actually, check that. The bowl game was memorable, the lasting image a throat slash that proved as ironic as it was classless. And the lasting sentiment was one that reduced a once-proud, perennial contender into the SEC version of the Chicago Cubs.

Wait till next year. Or maybe even the one after that.

The following two years of the Dooley era produced ever more pain and ever less promise, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t ever any signs of potential. Because in 2012, Georgia, South Carolina and Missouri were all right there for the taking. But no such taking would occur because (familiar refrain alert) the Vols were but a play or two away in each of them.

So pardon the portion of Vol Nation that’s over the commentators who throw meaningless platitudes at the program as it comes up short on national TV (yet) again. Pardon the portion of Vol Nation that’s sick and tired of hearing about the better days that never seem to get here.

Which, ironically, is the sentence that Butch Jones and his staff have inherited. The one they’re serving to pay for the sins of those who came before them. And that’s where these two prison sentences have intersected. Rumblings from the inmates who’ve been vacillating between pain and promise. Rumblings which are directed toward the men charged with cleaning up the mess which no one else wanted.

Sadly, “better days are coming” isn’t able to diffuse the situation any longer. At least not fully. The fact that it’s really true this time doesn’t matter. Because such words ring a bit hollow. Something about a boy and a wolf. And even if you’re not among those whose patience is virtually exhausted, it’s not hard to understand where such folks are coming from.

Because losing sucks.

And being asked to hang in there as the losses continue to mount isn’t exactly a cushy deal, either. Which is why it was so frustrating when this team, particularly the offense, took a few steps backward after showing such promise at Oklahoma. And at Georgia. And it’s why the first 18 minutes of the Alabama game were so difficult to endure. Vol Nation is sick and tired of the pain of the present. But it’s also why the last 42 minutes against Bama filled folks with such hope. Because it again showed the promise of the future.

And thus it was official. Vol Nation, along with the players and coaches for whom they cheer, had become a dog chasing its tail. The process would only end when something different was produced. This team, this program, was in desperate need of getting over the hump.

Enter Joshua Dobbs.

Oh, I know. We saw him last year. At the exact same point in the season, in fact. But there’s a key difference between the two scenarios. Last year, Dobbs’ athleticism was a shot in the arm. He did not add a different dimension, however. Yes. He can run. But so could Team 117. Better than any Volunteer team since 1998, as a matter of fact.

Team 118, however? Not so much. So not only has Dobbs’ sheer athleticism energized the team, it’s also added a dimension the team lacked altogether. An inexperienced, banged-up offensive line is the very worst hand a pro-style quarterback and freshman tailback could ever be dealt. But with Dobbs, the deck was reshuffled. No longer did everything start with the line, but instead with the quarterback.

None of that would mean anything until Josh Dobbs and the Tennessee Vols did something on the field, however. Something different. Something that hadn’t been done in a while. And Saturday night, they had a chance to do just that.

The team never quit, and that means a lot. But this team hasn’t quit all year, so never quitting wasn’t enough to get Team 118 over the hump. And merely going toe-to-toe with South Carolina in Columbia wouldn’t be enough either. The Vols have gone toe-to-toe with plenty of teams these past few years, a good many of them quite a bit better than the 2014 South Carolina Gamecocks, thank you very much.

No. The only thing that would qualify would be a win, if for no other reason than because in-conference road wins have been awfully tough to come by of late. In the post-Fulmer era, Lane Kiffin boasts UT’s best SEC road record. He was 1-3. Double D? He was 1-11 and went his last two seasons without notching a single one. And Butch Jones was just 1-5 when his team arrived in Columbia.

And if you really want to dig deep, the last time UT had beaten an SEC team on the road not named Vanderbilt or Kentucky was back in 2007. (I’ve had four children since then.) So to waltz into Columbia on a frigid night and get the W was huge, no matter what type of year the Gamecocks are having.

Take the home-and-away element out of it, though. Because there’s an argument that last year’s South Carolina win was more impressive than this year’s, considering the 2013 Gamecocks dropped just two all year and finished ranked No. 4 in the land.

But last year, the Vols game-managed their way to a victory. This year, Tennessee stormed to one. A borderline miraculous one at that. Last year, the win came in large part thanks to a few huge plays made late in the game. This year, it was thanks to countless plays, many of which were, indeed, made late, but many of which were also sprinkled intermittently throughout the entire contest. On both sides of the ball. With both offense and defense saving their best for last.

No. The Vols didn’t disappoint on Saturday. And they didn’t leave national commentators preaching patience after yet another near miss. And they didn’t even win ugly.

They won defiantly. And played with a swagger we’ve not seen around these parts for a while. In part thanks to a new quarterback. And in part thanks to featuring more and more players who were specifically recruited for the system this team runs.

And while there remains a lot of work to be done, there’s also reason to take great pride in that victory. Because it was unlike any in the past several years. Which is why history might just go on to suggest it was the one that finally got this program over the hump.

And if that’s the case, those prison sentences may soon get commuted.

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