Real UT sea­son be­gins against Florida

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

KNOXVILLE — With half­time of Satur­day’s game against Texas-El Paso just com­pleted — Ten­nessee ahead 10-0 in a game it was pro­jected to win by as many as 31 points — a call went out to one of the big­gest Big Or­ange fans I know.

“So what do you think of your Vols?”

I asked.

“What do you mean?” he replied.

“What’s the score?”

Huh?

“The first half was so bor­ing we’ve switched to the (At­lanta) Braves.”

Silly Vol­niac. If he’d only waited he could have seen his col­lege foot­ball he­roes ex­plode for 14 points in the fi­nal half to wrap up a 24-0 vic­tory over the win­less Min­ers.

In­stead, while watch­ing the Bravos lose 7-1 to Wash­ing­ton, he missed that amaz­ing 81-yard touch­down gal­lop down the left side­line by Ten­nessee run­ning back Ty Chan­dler early in the third quar­ter. He also missed a 4-yard TD toss from quar­ter­back Jar­rett Guar­an­tano to Jauan Jen­nings with 11:14 to go in the game. Oh, and let’s not for­get kicker Brent Cimaglia’s three ex­tra-point kicks and his 38-yard field goal to open the scor­ing. Or Tim Jor­dan’s 3-yard run a lit­tle more than four min­utes into the sec­ond pe­riod.

Never mind that UTEP had lost pre­vi­ously to Northern Ari­zona by a 30-10 score and to Ne­vada-Las Ve­gas by a 52-24 to­tal.

A 24-point vic­tory mar­gin is a 24-point vic­tory mar­gin and right in line with the mar­gins turned in by the Lum­ber­jacks and Rebels against that west Texas univer­sity.

Be­sides, as UT de­fen­sive line­man Kyle Phillips ob­served, “We don’t want any­body scor­ing on us.”

Mis­sion ac­com­plished, even if the real mis­sion for

ev­ery Big Or­ange sea­son be­gins this com­ing Satur­day, when the Vol­un­teers and first-year coach Jeremy Pruitt face their first South­east­ern Con­fer­ence op­po­nent of the year in the Florida Ga­tors.

“We bet­ter (im­prove),” Pruitt noted af­ter this one, “be­cause now the real sea­son starts.”

If you won­der how the real sea­son will go over th­ese next six weeks against five SEC op­po­nents, it’s tempt­ing to say that you might want to check out the Braves. Or the Univer­sity of Ten­nessee at Chat­tanooga Mocs. Or the au­tumn leaves.

While the UT brass is to be highly praised for open­ing its doors for free to all those un­for­tu­nate souls dis­placed by Hur­ri­cane Florence, in some ways they got the kind of game they paid for.

Play­ing as it has thus far, through two gimme wins and one dispir­it­ing loss to West Vir­ginia, Ten­nessee may find it dif­fi­cult to win any of those first six league games, but es­pe­cially any one ex­cept Florida. Be­cause the Ga­tors also are break­ing in a new coach, and they also strug­gled might­ily in 2017 (4-7), and the game’s in Ney­land 20 years af­ter the Vols knocked off Florida on their way to the 1998 na­tional cham­pi­onship, it’s tempt­ing to say the Big Or­ange can stand 3-1 by late Satur­day night.

And they might. The Ga­tors have lost at home to an un­ranked Ken­tucky team and strug­gled early with un­der­whelm­ing Colorado State on Satur­day. Re­gard­less of the rel­a­tive scarcity of points on the Ney­land score­board, the Vols de­fense did limit the Min­ers to 134 to­tal of­fen­sive yards (175 yards be­low their av­er­age) and never let them get closer than the UT 33-yard line, and that only af­ter the Vols fum­bled a UTEP punt.

Yet even those num­bers didn’t es­pe­cially please Pruitt.

“We had no turnovers on de­fense, and it’s go­ing to be hard to win in the SEC mov­ing for­ward if we’re not cre­at­ing any turnovers,” he groused. “We’re go­ing to have to be a team that cre­ates a bunch of turnovers.”

That said, the Vols hadn’t been com­mit­ting turnovers on of­fense be­fore the Min­ers came to town. Three fum­bles (two of them lost) changed that, but this team still ap­pears to value the foot­ball, which is a ne­ces­sity when your mar­gin for er­ror is as slen­der as UT’s this sea­son.

What is be­com­ing more clear each week is the im­pact Pruitt’s at­ten­tion to de­tail and ob­ses­sion with each week of prepa­ra­tion be­ing ex­actly like the other week is hav­ing on his team.

Four of the five play­ers the Vols brought to the in­ter­view room fol­low­ing the game spoke of mak­ing ev­ery day in prac­tice like ev­ery other.

Said wide re­ceiver Bran­don John­son of the ex­pected ex­cite­ment of Florida week: “You can al­ways feel the at­mos­phere change around you as far as the fans. As for us, noth­ing changes. Prepa­ra­tion is the same.”

Said Phillips of the need to play cleaner foot­ball, es­pe­cially in re­gard to penal­ties: “In (the SEC), one mis­take can cost you a game.”

As Pruitt said, the real games start this week­end. Florida. Then Ge­or­gia. Then Auburn. Then Alabama. Then South Carolina.

“Are we ready as a foot­ball team?” Pruitt asked. “When you turn the ball over two times and don’t get any turnovers, make eight penal­ties — prob­a­bly 10 if you count the ones they de­clined — it would be hard to beat any­body in the SEC play­ing like that.”

Al­most as hard as watch­ing it.

Mark Wied­mer

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