This is going to be short and sweet.
The first reason for that is there simply wasn’t much about which to be excited in a lackluster 14-3 win over Conference USA also-ran Charlotte that looked like neither the players nor the coaches wanted to be in Neyland Stadium. Secondly, you probably don’t want to read too much about the game against the 49ers. Heck, you may have even decided to skip the game and enjoy a beautiful fall Saturday with your family instead.
It would have been a good one to sit out, that’s for sure.
But, as most coaches say, you never apologize for a win. Tennessee got its fourth on Saturday, even though it was hard to feel any warm-and-fuzzies at all from it. They still have to somehow get two of the final three to get bowl-eligible the traditional way.
That seems hard when you consider Kentucky is rugged, good on both lines and has a star pass-rusher in Josh Allen and stud running back in Benny Snell who will give the Vols fits. Missouri is an absolutely horrid matchup nightmare for Tennessee with Drew Lock and a dynamic passing game that torched Florida on Saturday. And while Vanderbilt looks like the most winnable, the Commodores have won two straight against UT and will be at home in Nashville.
Yes, Saturday sucked. But it may just be the last time this Tennessee team gets to experience a win this year. There are certainly no guarantees from here on.
So, today’s column looks at some positives [regardless of how difficult they are to find]. We’ll give a nod to the past as well as the future.
First of all, let’s look back. To appreciate where you hope you’re going, you have to embrace [or at least understand] where you’ve been. Kyle Phillips, Shy Tuttle and Todd Kelly Jr. have played a lot of football for Tennessee over the past four years, and while they certainly aren’t elite SEC players, they’ve had some good moments in orange and white, even though a lot of folks see them as part of awful defensive issues of the past few years.
They had a nice game against Charlotte, which was good to see. Those are all seniors, and this will be their last run in Knoxville, so to see a guy like Phillips — a phenomenal kid from an extraordinary family — have a game where he got four tackles, a sack and two tackles for a loss is nice to see. Defensive tackle Tuttle added four more tackles, and Kelly Jr. had seven.
For TKJr., it was extra special. He had a scary situation this offseason that called into question his health and some other things, and it was obvious in the early stages of the season when he couldn’t break into the lineup that he was never going to be the same player he was when he arrived on campus as a highly coveted recruit who was offered by everybody from Alabama to Georgia to USC to Ohio State. The only real reason he’s on the field is because of injuries to Trevon Flowers and Micah Abernathy.
But he responded on Saturday with his best outing of the year. The Vols need the more athletic Flowers and the steady Abernathy back soon, and they need the light to come on quickly for Shawn Shamburger, but TKJr. was needed on Saturday, and he responded.
That’s good for everybody to see.
From a future standpoint, you almost had to wonder what was going through Alontae Taylor’s head as he drew his second targeting penalty of the season. With him out, UT’s already depleted secondary got slimmer, and Marquill Osborne had a frustrating injury in relief of the true freshman. But the other freshman CB — Bryce Thompson — had a big game.
He continued to flash, getting to Miami transfer quarterback Evan Shirreffs for a sack and then picking off Shirreffs at the end of the game to seal the win.
It’s sad that the Vols needed big defensive plays in this one, but they absolutely did. With so many offensive line issues — problems that don’t look fixable this season — the loss of Ty Chandler, who was banged up and had very limited snaps, and the ineffectiveness of quarterback Jarrett Guarantano and play-caller Tyson Helton, the Vols needed a big-time performance from their defense.
That side of the ball rose to the occasion all afternoon long.
Without a win over Charlotte, there was zero chance of a bowl game. But UT won — no matter how hideously — to set up at least an outside shot to get bowl-eligible. You can poo-poo making it at 6-6 or even 5-7 all you want to, but the young kids need all the practice they can get, and the Jeremy Pruitt era needs to end the first season with some positivity.
It would be good for recruiting, it would be good for player development, and it also would be good for some of these seniors who endured last year’s 4-8 debacle and the topsy-turvy Butch Jones era and end up winners.
There is a long, long way to go before we can call them that. No matter what happens the rest of the way, this group of outgoing players aren’t going to be remembered the way we thought they would when they were recruited and part of quality, highly-ranked recruiting classes.
Blame whoever you want to for that, but the evidence remains that UT is the least-talented team in the SEC. It is what it is, and if the Vols can make a bowl game this year, it’ll be because of that Auburn win and because they stole a couple down the stretch.
If you don’t beat the 49ers, none of that is possible.
It still is, even if it was very, very ugly.