Three weeks ago the Tennessee Volunteers fell to Arkansas at home. They were 2-3 and, with games against Georgia and Alabama looming, staring a 2-5 start right in the face. To the surprise of many, myself included, the Vols rebounded from a lackluster and dispassionate effort against the Razorbacks to knock off No. 19 Georgia two weeks ago.
Despite that victory, questions still lingered headed into the open date and the impending matchup with the Tide. Was that win a fluke? Were the Vols turning a corner? Was Georgia even a quality opponent?
We know who Alabama is. They’re not as dominant as they once were under Saban, but they’re still the most talented team in the nation. In fact, they’re the only team on Tennessee’s schedule who significantly outclasses the Vols from a talent perspective. They’re 7-1, a top-10 team and playoff bound if they can beat LSU on November 7th. They also beat Georgia 38-10 and are a significantly better team than the Bulldogs.
The Vols had multiple chances to beat Alabama but, in the end, Tennessee couldn’t get it done, falling 19-14 to the Crimson Tide.
There are no moral victories in football, but that doesn’t mean we discount what happened Saturday.
Tennessee, a team that looked lost just three weeks ago, had the most talented team in the country on the ropes late. A four play, 75 yard touchdown drive late in the 4th quarter gave the Vols a 14-13 lead – their first 4th quarter lead in the series since the year before Saban arrived (2006).
They stood toe-to-toe with the Tide. The late game collapses, comprised of poor game management and unimaginative play calls, that marred the start of the season were nowhere to be found. Alabama was simply better late. That’s disappointing, yes, but not soul-crushing like Tennessee’s earlier losses in which they snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
Since 2009, Alabama averaged a 28.4 point margin of victory over Tennessee. Last year they beat the Vols by 14. This year by just five. That’s not something to celebrate, but it does answer a few questions about Team 119.
Was their win over Georgia a fluke? Absolutely not. They have played energetic and invigorated football since losing to Arkansas. They’re looser and they’re more aggressive across the board.
If they can continue that trend, they won’t erase the memory of their early season collapses, but they can take some tangible steps forward – steps which seemed delusional a few weeks ago. If you had told me after the Arkansas loss that Tennessee would beat Georgia and have the ball with a chance to beat Alabama in the waning moments of the 4th quarter, I would have reported you to the authorities. Tennessee has, against the odds, played their best ball against the two most talented opponents on their schedule – all after suffering multiple heartbreaking defeats early in the season.
They look like a team that has turned the corner and found an identity. And they look like a team that knows they’re more talented than their record suggests.
The Vols were decided underdogs against Alabama but will be favored in their remaining games. Ultimately, coaches are paid to win. Butch Jones’ team has proven they can play aggressive and can play with confidence. If the Vols can capture that mentality as the prohibitive favorite the rest of the season, the wins Vol fans covet, and a respectable 8-4 record, are on the way.
Can Tennessee stay aggressive and record their first eight win season since 2007?
That’s a question I wouldn’t have asked three weeks ago, but a question that, if the last two games are any indication, the Vols should answer emphatically.