Fork in the road for Tennessee

Marvin Westwestwords

As the great philosopher Yogi Berra may have said, “When you come to the fork in the road, take it!”

Tennessee football has arrived at the proverbial fork. The record is 5-5. The team has a choice. It can go up or down, right or wrong. It can forge on toward success and a better-than-bad bowl game – or discourage our faith, stamp out happy days and turn back in the general direction of the awful start to this season.

If the Volunteers win at Missouri Saturday, pressure is reduced. They will be bowl eligible without stretching it to the limit, the grand finale against Vanderbilt. One more win and Jeremy Pruitt will qualify for his $100,000 bonus.

If they lose, fans will ask if what we thought was improvement was actually smoke and mirrors.

Another wise philosopher, Phillip Fulmer, Hall of Fame coach now employed as athletics director, sees a million things the Vols could do better but has stamped his approval on their accomplishments.

He said he is “really, really pleased” with the progress. He praised Pruitt and staff for holding the team together through the disturbing 1-4 start. Indeed, it could have unraveled. Jarrett Guarantano’s play was a precursor to disaster. It didn’t happen.

Tennessee has won four of its last five. The quarterback scramble tuned out to be a blessing. Optimism was reborn. Some of it is blind.

I don’t recall Yogi saying anything about counting chickens before they hatch but Big Orange Country should consider that fair warning. Missouri’s back is against the wall. There may be some fight remaining. The early betting line favors the home team by six.

This was to have been a big year for the Tigers. Coach Barry Odom acquired a top transfer to lead the way. Kelly Bryant, imported from Clemson, became a hero by not evacuating when the NCAA imposed the post-season ban. Bryant decided to hang in there. He thought Mizzou was going to be relevant.

The Tigers, also 5-5, started with a loss to Wyoming but won five in a row. They took the wrong route when they came to the fork in the road. The offense got stuck in reverse. The team has endured four consecutive losses. It managed to lose to Vanderbilt and Kentucky.

Odom does not blame the players. He says they are good enough and coaches must put them in a position to succeed.

Mizzou’s last 30 possessions, spanning two and a half games, have produced 21 punts, a couple of picks, a fumble, a few field goals and the ends of three games. There have been no touchdowns. Offensive coordinator Derek Dooley can’t explain it.

Odom tried.

“We’re not functioning at all on offense.”

Tennessee followed an opposite route from there to here, from start to now. The Vols were noticeably shocked by the first two losses. They were knocked around and cuffed about by Florida, Georgia and Alabama.

The schedule turned more forgiving.

LaTrell Bumphus, former tight end who never caught a pass, now a defensive lineman, 6-3 and 273, said the Vols got much better at overcoming adversity. They certainly had opportunities to learn.

“I feel like for most of us, the whole time that we’ve been here, we’ve been facing adversity.”

There is something to be said for the school of hard knocks.

This Jim Chaney offense has zigged and zagged through it. A positive move occurred when the handcuffs came off and the ball was thrown down the field. Wide receiver advantage paid off.

The running attack is still missing. Red zone numbers are depressing.

The defense made measurable improvement. I’ll tell you when it started.

The best performance of the first half of the season came against Georgia. The net result was a 43-14 loss.

Defensive Vols (missed tackles, misalignments and breakdowns) allowed the second-most points among SEC teams through the first five games. They were lost in the wilderness but suddenly found their way against Mississippi State. They racked up seven sacks, intercepted three passes and bottled up a previously productive running game. That performance was more convincing that the 20-10 score.

They have continued to exceed expectations. Older Vols have made a difference. Freshman linebacker Henry To’o To’o  is a budding star.

OK, all that was then. The challenge now is finishing. Yogi is no help. He made it to the baseball hall of fame but didn’t finish high school.

Marvin West welcomes reader remarks and questions. His address is

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