UT’s out­look changes with pos­si­bil­ity of a bowl game

Chattanooga Times Free Press - - SPORTS - Con­tact Mark Wied­mer at mwied­mer@times­freep­ress.com.

AUBURN, Ala. — An un­ex­pected melody made its way through Jor­dan-Hare Sta­dium in the fi­nal sec­onds of the Ten­nessee-Auburn foot­ball game Satur­day af­ter­noon. Its ap­pear­ance brought along both hope and hope­less­ness, de­pend­ing on which fan base’s ears it en­tered. “Rocky Top, you’ll al­ways be,” came the words from thou­sands clad in Ten­nessee or­ange, “home sweet home to me. Good ol’ Rocky Top …”

Said Ten­nessee coach Jeremy Pruitt a few min­utes later as he dis­cussed this shock­ing 30-24 vic­tory over the Tigers: “It’s al­ways great to beat Auburn, es­pe­cially at Auburn.”

Though he didn’t say it, Pruitt could have added that it was re­ally great to win at Auburn af­ter los­ing in this same sta­dium 11 months ago as the de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor for even­tual na­tional cham­pion Alabama, his alma mater.

But what should be asked of every Big Or­ange fan in the wake of this stun­ning tri­umph are three ques­tions that all need but the same one-word an­swer:

1) Could it be that the Ten­nessee foot­ball pro­gram has it­self a pretty fair head coach?

2) And a sur­pris­ingly salty team?

3) And, if you doubted it be­fore, a fu­ture wholly wor­thy of rapt at­ten­tion and eager an­tic­i­pa­tion?

To th­ese three ques­tions all Vol­ni­acs should re­ply: Yes. Yes. YES!!!

What hap­pened in­side Jor­dan-Hare Sta­dium was no fluke. Fresh off a per­fectly timed off week, the Big Or­ange went into the hal­lowed home of the na­tion’s No. 21 team and me­thod­i­cally and mer­ci­lessly crushed the Tigers, thanks to a dom­i­nant third quar­ter.

“It’s beyond words,” Ten­nessee cen­ter Ryan John­son said. “But it’s also in the past now. We can’t dwell on the past. We’ve got to get ready for next week.”

Next week, of course, is now this week, which means a visit from top-ranked Alabama, which

re­sem­bles Auburn only in the fact they both call the same state home.

But the Ten­nessee fans, who have so loy­ally clung to their proud dis­tant past rather than their rather shaky past cou­ple of decades, can quite proudly live in this very re­cent past. They can warmly em­brace the Vols’ first SEC win since Nov. 19, 2016, when they clob­bered Mis­souri 63-37. They can cel­e­brate their team’s first vic­tory over a ranked foe since that im­prob­a­ble, re­mark­able road vic­tory at Ge­or­gia that same sea­son, the one that was se­cured on a last-sec­ond touch­down catch by Jauan Jen­nings off a per­fect throw from Josh Dobbs.

In what is surely no co­in­ci­dence, Jen­nings caught the go-ahead TD in this one off a pass from Jar­rett Guar­an­tano, who later said of that catch, “I didn’t see it. I got hit pretty hard.”

Just not quite as hard as the Vols de­fense hit back. Though bat­tered and bruised, Pruitt’s pride and joy forced Tigers quar­ter­back Jar­rett “Jit­ters” Stid­ham into two in­ter­cep­tions and one fum­ble, which UT fresh­man de­fen­sive back Alon­tae Tay­lor re­turned for a touch­down and a 27-17 third-quar­ter lead.

“We wanted to im­prove our tack­ling,” de­fen­sive back Baylen Buchanan said of the fo­cus dur­ing last week’s off week. “The ef­fort this week was just way dif­fer­ent than it usu­ally is. Ev­ery­body was ex­cited to get out there and get bet­ter. I think that showed on the field to­day.”

If you’re ob­jec­tive, the only week the Vols haven’t im­proved since the Week 1 loss to West Vir­ginia was against Florida, and given that the Ga­tors have lost only once all year and ral­lied from a 21-3 hole at Van­der­bilt on Satur­day to win 37-27, that set­back looks bet­ter by the day.

The re­al­ity is that Ten­nessee — now 3-3 over­all and 1-2 in the SEC — now looks like a team em­i­nently ca­pa­ble of win­ning every game it plays from here on out save, prob­a­bly, Alabama. This isn’t to say the Vols will win those other games or that they should win, but merely that they can win, which no one would have pre­dicted at Satur­day’s dawn.

And should that hap­pen, the Vols should wind up with at least six or seven wins, which would guar­an­tee them a bowl game, some­thing no one thought pos­si­ble head­ing into last week’s bye week.

Mean­while Auburn (4-3 and 1-3) has lost three of its last five and has a lot of its fans won­der­ing how it can find the nearly $40 mil­lion needed to buy out Gus Malzahn’s con­tract.

“This is my first SEC win,” said Guar­an­tano, who saw the Vols go 0-8 in league play last sea­son. “This is a big mon­key off our back. But we know we’re go­ing to come in on Mon­day and Coach Pruitt is go­ing to fo­cus on all we need to im­prove on.”

Added de­fen­sive back Nigel War­rior: “Coach said, ‘Con­grat­u­la­tions. Now let’s go back to work.’”

This was Pruitt’s plan from the day he took the job on Pearl Har­bor Day last year. He would build this pro­gram the old-fash­ioned way: on fun­da­men­tals, on hard work, on ac­count­abil­ity. Look at the stats. Auburn had more yardage — 448 to 396 — but Ten­nessee had zero turnovers to three for Auburn and con­trolled the foot­ball for eight more min­utes.

Said Malzahn of those stats and out­come: “Ten­nessee didn’t turn the ball over and they had a good third-down plan. They were al­most 50 per­cent on third down (ac­tu­ally bet­ter than 50 per­cent at 10-of-19). Their kids fought hard and found a way to win.”

It’s doubt­ful that for­mula will stun Alabama. But it should serve the Vols well at South Carolina and Van­der­bilt and at home against Char­lotte, Ken­tucky and Mis­souri.

“Our job is to make (this pro­gram) bet­ter than we found it,” Pruitt said as the UT locker room be­hind him kept gen­er­at­ing happy noise. “And that’s what we in­tend to do.”

Or keep do­ing.

Mark Wied­mer

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