Since the infliction of what has become the coaching carousel at Tennessee began after Phillip Fulmer’s departure after the 2008 season, the once mighty Tennessee Volunteers have resorted to being one of the bottom feeders of the SEC.
Not since 2006 have the Volunteers defeated a top 10 opponent, and not since 2009 have they beat a top 25 opponent. On Saturday against then No. 6 Georgia (4-1) that dismal statistic was literally inches away from changing.
The Vols put on arguably their greatest performance since their victory over a top 25-ranked South Carolina in 2009 on Saturday. Despite trailing early, they rallied back, outscoring the Bulldogs 28-7 to take their first lead of the game with 1:54 left in the game. When Aaron Murray led his limping offense down the field to score on the final drive in regulation, the Vols continued the fight until the fumble by Alton “Pig” Howard occurred just inches shy of the goal line, ultimately ending the game as Georgia booted through the game winning field goal just four plays later.
It’s no doubt Saturday’s game was a step in the right direction for a struggling Tennessee program, but their display could also come back to haunt them. While they may have dazzled recruits, gaining two more throughout the week for the 2014 class, they also amazed a fan base who has been blood thirsty for victory for years now.
While a passionate fan base is now doubt an advantage when at home, it in turn can be a bad thing when you’re not playing the way they expect you to from week to week. Now that Volunteer fans have seen a glimpse of what their team can do against one of the nation’s best, they may very well expect an upset come October 19 when Tennessee plays host to South Carolina for a noon kickoff on ESPN.
After a close call with Georgia, if the Vols can’t deliver the same against South Carolina, who lost to the Bulldogs earlier in the season by double digits, some of the fans may grow restless again. It happened with Fulmer who was fired one year removed from his fifth SEC championship game appearance in just 11 years, as well as Derek Dooley who was let go after only three years at the helm of the Tennessee program.
What fans may not understand is while they almost pulled the biggest upset of the college football season to this point, and the biggest win in the program in the last seven years, Tennessee is still in a rebuilding process. They don’t have the best talent, and while a rabid Volunteer Nation would like to think they are closer to being back to a perennial power than they expected, the fact is they’re not.
The Vols still have an average-at-best quarterback leading the offense in Justin Worley. While he took some major strides in improving on Saturday, one game will not make him a Heisman candidate type of quarterback in an instant. They also have a young receiving corps made of mainly freshmen who are still learning and building as they go. Also, while the defense may look much more sound than last year, they still have a secondary that is not only young, but lacking the athleticism it needs to at the least contain an SEC offense.
While Saturday’s game was a huge step in the development of a broken program, the people around it need to keep in mind that just because they almost beat a national contender team one week, it doesn’t mean they are ready to take on the world just yet. What Tennessee fans should be happy about, though, is first-year head coach Butch Jones seems to have the Vols back on the right track.
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