TUSCALOOSA, Ala.– Saturday was my third trip to Tuscaloosa to cover the Vols and they’ve all ended the same way – with the distinct smell of cigar smoke.
The Alabama students seated right behind the end zone light up victory cigars when Alabama (7-1, 4-1 SEC) beats the Vols. The smoke hovers over the end zone a bit, covering UT players, coaches and personnel as they leave the field. It creeps into the visitor’s media room as interviews take place. The smell and that memory has remained basically the same every time I’ve covered the Vols in Tuscaloosa.
This game felt much different, however.
The scoreboard tells a lot of the story. After losing the last two matchups in Bryant-Denny Stadium by a combined total of 66 points, the Vols fell 19-14 to No. 8 Alabama on Saturday, but as Butch Jones firmly stated after the game, there are no moral victories for the University of Tennessee.
And he’s right. The trend of losing close, hard-fought games continues to be puzzling and concerning for Jones and the Vols. This team is a handful of plays from being 6-1 or 5-2, very much in the SEC East hunt and ranked in the top 20 or 15. But in a results-oriented business, the 2015 Vols, so far, are a picture of unfulfilled potential, there’s no getting around that.
So while Saturday in itself wasn’t an acceptable result for Tennessee (3-4, 1-3 SEC), it did feel like it could be a springboard. The Vols took arguably the most talented team in the nation to the brink. And now the schedule takes a turn for the better. The Vols still have questions and issues, but a squad that roared to a 4-1 finish down the stretch in 2014 might be on the cusp of piling up some late-season wins again in 2015.
“Definitely, definitely,” senior offensive tackle Kyler Kerbyson said when asked if the Vols are confident they can win out. “We’re in a five-game playoff now. I said I’m not going to lose another game in a Tennessee uniform – I don’t want it. I want to win out as a senior and I think everybody else feels that way too after these close games. And it’s not like we’re getting killed. I mean, in the past when we played top-10 teams, we’d get blown out all the time, you know now we’re there, so we really believe that we can win.”
The key to a strong finish for the Vols? Not letting this Alabama game “beat them twice,” as senior safety Brian Randolph, who recorded his first INT of the season, said following the game.
It would be understandable if there’s a hangover. Tennessee took a 14-13 lead with 5:49 remaining in the game after Jalen Hurd powered through the Bama defense for a 12-yard score. The Vols could taste the eight-year losing streak potentially coming to an end to their bitter rival.
This was a game the Vols believed they could win. They almost did. Alabama, again showing why it might be playoff bound in 2015, made a championship-level drive, making big play after big play on an eight-play, 71-yard drive that proved to be the game-winner after the Vols fumbled away their last opportunity with under two minutes remaining.
Now the Vols have to take that same mentality into five games where the name on the jersey might not be as impressive as Alabama, but the opportunities will still be large.
“We have to stay positive,” Randolph said. “A loss is a loss, you’re going to feel bad regardless, but you have to make people see the bigger picture. They made some outstanding plays on us, they just made a couple more plays than we did.”
Tennessee could potentially be favored in every game going forward. If they have the type of effort they did in Tuscaloosa, they very well might run the table as Kerbyson said he believes the Vols can. An 8-4 finish and a nice step for the program could still be in the cards for the 2015 Vols. For a team that hasn’t surpassed the seven-win plateau since 2009, when current Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin was on UT’s sideline, that’s something to play for despite all the frustration in 2015 so far.
“I thought our whole football team was [gritty],” Butch Jones said after the game. “We’re going through some growing pains right now, but I see great progress. It’s about closing games out, making critical plays when the game is on the line. But we’ve got a group of resilient young men in that locker room and I hurt for them. We all hurt together, but we’re going to come back to work tomorrow and continue to improve and get stronger from it and continue to progress and move forward.”
The smoke still lingered over the Vols as they left Bryant-Denny on Saturday evening, but they’re hoping they’re about to break out into the clear.
“Our time will come,” Jones said as he concluded his remarks to the media. It was close to coming on Saturday, but no cigar.