Last year my wife and I brought our firstborn home from the hospital the day Tennessee played Georgia, the best of all ways to not be thinking about the game. “Did we really fumble it right back to them? Hey, he peed on the floor!” But from there, I’d imagine your October and November with the Vols were a little like mine no matter what ages you had at home: outcomes a little blurry, details inconsequential, lots of losing and little hope.
Yesterday friends and family gathered round to celebrate our son’s first birthday in the morning, then watch the Georgia game at 3:30. It seemed like another well-timed teacher of perspective. And we were all, spoken or unspoken, afraid of the same thing happening to the Vols again. Not the result, which seemed automatic with Tennessee at +32.5. But the outcome: a we’re-so-bad-none-of-this-matters hopelessness.
Tennessee made it matter. Right now, that’s a win.
It wasn’t simply in beating Vegas or playing better than last year against this particular opponent. The 2017 version featured not only a shutout but, far worse, 2.73 yards per play from the Vol offense. This time around Tennessee averaged 4.54. Not great, but it had a pulse. As has been the case since the West Virginia game, this is a theme for 2018: far from excellent, but capable of competence (when not turning it over six times).
Heart failure was a major concern coming in: new coach not used to losing, brutal loss to your most relevant rival last week, players sent to the locker room, uh oh. We’ve been staring down the oncoming train of this particular gauntlet for a long time. If what happened last year happened again this year, we wouldn’t have liked it but we might’ve understood it. And, as was the case when the calendar turned to October last year, the rest of the season would have been about next season.
But Tennessee showed heart on both sides of the ball, particularly on defense. They got little help from an offense that ran only 42 plays before Jeremy Banks fumbled with less than four minutes to go. The Vols seem committed to running the football, even if they’re not running it particularly well: Jarrett Guarantano remains fourth among SEC quarterbacks in yards per attempt (8.6), but the Vols are still last in the league in attempts (21.2 per game). Tennessee runs it almost literally twice as much as they throw it (211-106).
And this answer, like many things with this team, may simply come back to what they believe about the offensive line. Guarantano stayed relatively clean on Saturday – another big win – but you still feel nervous every time we don’t run. The gameplan for a while felt like Lane Kiffin’s against Urban Meyer when the Vols were 30-point underdogs on the road in 2009, with a quarterback we thought was fragile behind patchwork offensive line. Tennessee leaned on its defense, which worked to prevent big plays, and took few chances on the offensive end. Keep it close, and keep everyone – players, fans, etc. – invested.
It worked, eventually, in 2009. And it seemed to work this week too.
And it’s really selling our defense short to say they just worked to prevent big plays. In the run game, if you take out Isaac Nauta’s 31-yard gift with our defense in pass coverage, Georgia averaged 4.4 yards per carry. The only defenses to hold them to less than that the last two years: Notre Dame, Auburn (the first time), and Alabama. It’s a full day even trying to slow down Georgia’s run game. The Vol defense put in a full day’s work.
Speaking of heart, you’ll probably see what you want to see out of this:
“We’ve got fight in us.”
— Marc Whiteman (@MarcWhiteman) September 29, 2018
…but regardless of whatever way you lean on coach emotion, etc., the Vols had already proven Pruitt’s point before he got choked up. I’m not in the locker room to see it behind the scenes, but you saw it on the field yesterday.
So far, the Vols are better than they were last year. That part you can back up statistically, but we’re aiming for a higher bar than that. Given the opportunity to write themselves off, or be written off by the number two team in the country, Tennessee’s heart is instead still beating. Six wins still feels like an uphill climb, but the Vols still have their hands on the rope. Just as important, the Vols are still relatively healthy. Brandon Kennedy’s loss was obviously unhelpful, and one hopes Marquez Callaway can get out of concussion protocol by the Auburn game. But on the whole, Tennessee seems largely intact in mind, body, and quarterback.
Alabama, of course, is still to come; we all know what we’re getting into there. But the rest feels a little less known today. Auburn, despite their persistence in the Top 10, could drift slowly toward “trap game” territory in the next two weeks. Kentucky is in the Top 15 in both the polls and S&P+. I don’t know.
I don’t know about Tennessee either. But on a day when many were worried about us being put out of our misery on the last weekend of September, the Vols showed signs of life. It’s enough to get us through the bye week, and send us to Auburn with a spark. I don’t know if it’ll catch fire. But I’m eager to find out. Hope remains valuable around these parts. And while it may have gone to Athens to die, it came back to Knoxville alive.