Progress looks smallest against Alabama and doesn’t feel like much progress at all. But the right feel was indeed present yesterday, even if briefly: down 28-0 with more than 11 minutes left in the second quarter, Tennessee forced consecutive three-and-outs on Alabama’s first-team offense. Then Tennessee’s own offense, which at that point had earned all of one first down (plus a second via penalty), came alive: Guarantano-to-Palmer for 30, then consecutive completions from Keller Chryst to Ty Chandler for a touchdown. And when Alabama answered after another near-miss on an onside kick, so too did the Vols: Jauan Jennings on 3rd-and-12, Jennings on a flea flicker (I was impressed but not surprised by the number of people in the stands who were absolutely confident Jennings would come out of the pile with that fumble), then Tyler Byrd (!) for a 20-yard touchdown.
The Vols were down 35-14 with 2:18 to play in the second quarter, and would receive the second half kickoff. I don’t think any of us thought we were winning. But Tennessee was alive, not just throwing wildly but landing some punches.
It didn’t last, of course: Tua’s six yard run on 3rd-and-5 three plays later was one of the game’s more important snaps, Bama punched it in with 15 seconds left before halftime, and more shenanigans on the second half kickoff ended most of the interest. But for Tennessee, against Alabama, this was progress.
It’s much more noticeable on paper. The Vols gained 258 yards in 55 plays against the Tide, 4.69 yards per play. Almost all of the damage was done against Bama’s first team: in the second half Tennessee ran only 24 plays for 84 yards (3.5 per play). It’s not just that Tennessee’s offense had a better day than Louisville, Ole Miss, and Missouri against Alabama’s defense. It’s how much better this Tennessee team was against the Crimson Tide than last year’s…and the year before that.
Hopelessness in this rivalry was last season, when the Vols gained 108 yards on 46 plays (2.35 per). The year before, still ranked ninth and with plenty of NFL talent, Tennessee gained 163 yards in 63 plays (2.59 per). Even trailing only 21-7 at halftime in 2016, there was a sense of impending doom quickly realized in the second half. To be fair, that team was decimated by injuries coming off Texas A&M, but Alabama made inept an offense that would go on to be the best in college football in the month of November.
We’ve been saying it all year, and it was true again yesterday: this year, competence is progress. Doing much of anything right against this Alabama team is competence, and the Vols showed it with a little flair in the second quarter. It was never going to be enough to win. But I like both the fight of this team, and the way that fight manifests itself versus last year.
Of course, the Vols already have their signature win, seem to have avoided any catastrophic injuries coming out of Bama, and still need just a split of their secondary SEC East rivals (plus a win over Charlotte) to get bowl eligible. So far Jeremy Pruitt has pushed the right buttons with this team.
Were his postgame quotes the right button? Pruitt is no doubt tired of losing, and tired of being non-competitive in the final analysis. So far he has not lost his team, and they have not lost their fight. It’s different, perhaps, when you’re coming off the worst season in school history and not a mediocre finish that ended the tenure of a longtime coach. These players, so far, have been invested as Pruitt has done the same in them.
This next part – South Carolina, Kentucky, Missouri, and Vanderbilt – was always going to be the most important for Tennessee to achieve its goals this year. And the Vols picked up a signature win along the way at Auburn. Tennessee seems to be entering the backstretch physically okay.
This has been the question all year: can the Vols be better in November than they were in September? To do that, Pruitt will have to keep his team together while continuing to challenge them to improve. I don’t doubt Tennessee’s spirit at this point. But can the Vols continue to throw and land meaningful punches and score meaningful wins against the rest of the schedule? Or will this team be beaten down, throwing punches with less behind them before collapsing to the canvas themselves?
These things are always a marathon, and in many ways the toughest miles should be behind us now. Does Tennessee have enough left to take advantage of what’s in front of them? If the answer is yes, progress will start looking better every week.