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Tennessee Has Turned This Season Into A Success, No Matter The Outcome Against Georgia

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While Georgia is putting together one of its best seasons in recent memory, with their path leading straight to the College Football Playoffs, Tennessee is working to finish off a year one turnaround. There aren’t many games around the country that have as much at stake than the one in Knoxville, for many reasons. The reason for that is the trajectory of both programs and how this game will look down the road.

#1 Georgia (9-0, 7-0) is a 19.5 point favorite over Tennessee (5-4, 3-3), for their 3:30 ET kickoff on CBS, according to FanDuel. 

If you were paying attention to any Tennessee game this season, you most likely heard the announcers talking about how many players this team lost to the transfer portal. It’s not a secret as to why some of these players left and definitely had an impact on a coach who had just taken the job at Tennessee. So, how the attrition hurt the football team has been one of the main topics this season, but in a different light.

Heading into the season opener, the chatter around the country was centered around how this football team would be lucky to win five games. Nobody had a clue what was coming during the Pittsburgh game, as Hendon Hooker trotted onto the field to replace an injured Joe Milton. Unbeknownst to Tennessee fans and a few coaches, the season was about to change in a big way. We weren’t talking about the Vols in a championship manner, but there was a different feeling that took over the program, after the Vols went down to Gainesville and showed some fight.

It was an experiment for the Tennessee coaching staff up until that point, trying to figure out which guys could be productive in this offense and how many had picked up the scheme. Nobody faults the staff for trying to find the right guys over the first four games, but we were about to see a change on offense, as the team boarded the bus to head home from Florida. The coaches had pulled a few players off to the side and told them they were needed to lead this football team and that the experimenting with the lineup was changing. One of those players was Velus Jones Jr., who was moved into the slot, while Javonta Payton and Cedric Tillman would take the outside. Along with Hendon Hooker, these guys were told it was time to flip the script and get them more involved, stopping this massive rotation in the process.

This is just one example of how things changed after that Florida game for the Vols. The reaction to that change would come a week later in Missouri. The offense had walked into the room and flipped a switch on the wall, all the sudden seeing the light, as this group put their foot on the throat of Missouri, beating them 62-24. I compare it to a boxer that was fighting right-handed, but all the sudden switched to southpaw, while the opponents stood their confused, right before taking the knockout shot.

There’s that saying about backing someone into a corner and you find out what they are made of during these tough times. This is a perfect representation of the Josh Heupel led Vols, as we’ve seen this group take on some tough challenges, with not much depth to depend on. I’ve covered a lot of football teams over the years and I’d be hard pressed to find another team that has fought their way out of that corner by showing their heart. In all honesty, this team doesn’t make sense, with the amount of talent that left this roster, you’ve still got a group of guys who are battling every opponent and making them work for that win. Doing this, has led to Tennessee fans fully embracing this squad and changing their outlook on what Josh Heupel and his staff are doing with this group.

This group went ten rounds in back-to-back fights with Ole Miss and Alabama, while they were one uppercut away from knocking off the Lane Kiffin led Rebels. I’ve spoken with multiple people about the Tennessee defense and what that staff has been able to get out of the group. One of the words that is used the most is heart. Looking at the depth at most positions on that side of the ball, it’s almost crazy to think that group lasted 99 plays in Lexington. But, Tim Banks and his assistants have done a great job at working with what they have and finding ways to be disruptive.

After losing two straight games, this team never flinched. It was a group that headed to Lexington looking for a payoff from all that hard work they put in to get there. It turned into a street-fight that the Vols finally put away, leading to celebration and pure joy from a group that had put in so much work to grab a win like this one. If you were watching at home, you probably exhaled and said to yourself, “Damn, what a game”.

When I get asked about this team, the mental toughness is something that I usually bring up, along with the ability of Josh Heupel to connect with his players. It’s pretty simple. They have the desire to go into battle with him, which is all you can ask for as a coach. So, as this team approached the Georgia game, I promise you they aren’t scared of the Dawgs, but they respect them. This Kirby Smart led team has an opportunity to play for a national championship if they continue playing at this level. As for Tennessee, well they came to the realization they wouldn’t be playing for a title earlier this season, but that hasn’t derailed them, like another school in the SEC East. They are playing for each other and those moments they’ve been chasing all season.

Vols DL Matthew Butler had dreams of being in the spot Georgia is in right now, as the #1 team in the country. But he also had one other dream, as he explained this week.

“When I was 16 or 17 and decided I was gonna come to the University of Tennessee. That’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to knock some No. 1s off and become No. 1. Obviously you know that’s not exactly how it went, but that’s what we’re planning to do, knock a No. 1 off”.

No matter how the Georgia game goes, this season should end up being a success, which not many of us thought, just three months ago.

Written by Trey Wallace

One Comment

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  1. Good article. I was wondering what changes were made, because the team you’ve seen play since the Missouri game is not the same who played Pitt and Florida. They started figuring something out on offense in that Florida game, and built on it ever since. To me that shows really good coaching to make mid season adjustments so well. Now to take the next step Heupel needs to sign a big time QB recruit(or maybe snag an unhappy guy from LSU or OU) after showing what this offense can do. I haven’t felt as optimistic about the program’s direction since Fulmer departed, that’s for sure.

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