UT’s outlook changes with possibility of a bowl game
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.