What we have here is good news a full notch above maybe and perhaps. Call it relief and belief.
No jumping to conclusions, mind you, but I am about to begin to believe that something exciting is finally starting to happen at Tennessee.
Relief: The ugly losing streak to Southeastern Conference foes is finished.
Belief: Jeremy Pruitt has his original signature victory. Others will follow.
Jarrett Guarantano dismissed some doubts, made big-time throws and turned potential into production, 328 yards and two touchdowns on 21-of-32 accuracy. This was the best game of his college life. A bit better protection and extra effort from receivers made it possible.
The defense wasn’t great but it did force three turnovers and was good enough to be an equal partner in a surprising upset of heavily favored Auburn. I would have liked it better had it not given up that late score and allowed the Tigers one last chance, the onside kick. How awful it would have been to have lost an investment that was already in the bank.
Defensive end Kyle Phillips provided perspective.
“Getting this win was huge but we have to keep getting better. That is what Coach is trying to establish, our expectation to win, not have close games or moral victories, win.”
The immediate outlook would be more favorable if we could trade in Alabama for another open date. It appears the Volunteers actually improved during the break. It also appears that the Crimson Tide is in a class by itself.
There are plenty of other concerns. Tennessee needs to adjust its short-yardage philosophy. The offensive line is not strong enough to win one-on-ones. The overall running game remains anemic. The Vols’ grand total was 68 yards.
First-down play selection is entirely too predictable and results are below average. There are too many missed tackles. Somebody blew an assignment on Anthony Schwartz 76-yard catch and run. It was so discouraging.
Ah, but there were many encouraging signs. The Vols keep playing hard. Without saying a word, they tell us how much football matters. It also says they believe in the coaching staff. That is a very good omen. Check it out in the last third of the season.
Tennessee had a very good game plan for both sides of the ball. Pruitt’s familiarity with Auburn and coach Gus Malzahn had to be a factor in preparation. Jeremy anticipated man coverage in the secondary which invited the downfield passing attack.
As injuries cut into already thin depth, replacements are stepping up. Chance Hall, long on the disabled list, played well in the offensive line. Nathan Niehaus moved up from second team and looked like he belonged. Marquill Osborne made some plays in the secondary. I had forgotten he was on the team.
Sad that on a day Jonathan Kongbo intercepted an Auburn pass, he suffered a knee injury. Big guys are vulnerable to chop blocks. This one must not have been a foul. There was no flag.
I liked offensive coordinator Tyson Helton on the sideline. I liked Guarantano minus handcuffs so he could check into potentially better plays. I don’t like third and long but I really liked what Guarantano did about those dilemmas. He was eight for eight.
Alexis Johnson, once an honorable mention in the Kansas junior college circuit, is now a main man in the middle of Tennessee’s defensive line.
There was a postgame scene I’m going to save for flashbacks. Old coach Phillip Fulmer caught a fast elevator down from the press box to be part of the winning celebration on the field. He congratulated coaches and players. It is meaningful to have a hall-of-famer say well done.
Fulmer and wideout Jauan Jennings shared a brief happy hug. Late last fall, Jennings was fired from the team for caustic comments and general misbehavior. The new athletic director, long an advocate of second chances, recommended that the new coach create a way for Jennings to regain citizenship.
The coach did his part. The player did his. And he helped defeat Auburn. Fulmer noticed. I’m going to treasure the moment.
Marvin West invites reader reaction. His address is firstname.lastname@example.org