As the second half unfolded between South Carolina and Tennessee, I, too, joined the chorus of concerned folks about the Dooley-esque performance.
Remember the good old days of Derek Dooley, when the Vols would emerge from the locker room to start the third quarter and have to call time out because they weren’t lined up properly?
And this was in Week 7 of the season.
The Vols seemed to sleepwalk through the second half and almost let SC back into the game. I don’t mind telling you, I was in that minority of folks who were a bit concerned. Even head coach Josh Heupel conceded that his team lost a little offensive focus and took the foot off the gas.
Tennessee roared to life as the game began and led 28-0 in the first quarter. It picked up where it left off in Missouri. I even jokingly said the Vols were taking it to the Missouri Gamecocks. What they did in the first 30 minutes on offense was scintillating. Everything seemed to work.
Then they got comfortable.
Jacob Warren plain forgot to cover his man on that South Carolina fake punt, which everybody in the stadium knew was coming. And he was supposed to be looking for that on his side of the field.
He had one job.
That was a concern. Tennessee can’t afford to get mentally soft, even with a big lead. Give a team an inch …
There were plenty of encouraging nuggets. This team seems to be getting better. It seems to be correcting some issues that plagued it earlier in the season. This team scored more points, won more games and has had more plays for 40 yards or more than this team had during the entirety of last season. Last year, the Vols had three plays of 40 yards or more. They have more than doubled that this year. Tiyon Evans is a stud. But he’s a banged-up stud now. So is Cooper Mays. I like the fact that Jalin Hyatt is beginning to make a contribution.
The offense is clicking.
Defensively, I didn’t think the Vols let up. It has been pretty solid since the Pitt game. Defensively, Tennessee’s numbers versus Florida were better than Alabama’s, even though Emory Jones is still running on Tennessee. There is still work to do, but the defense has been consistently decent.
Tennessee sputtered in the second half, yet still beat an SEC team by 25, 45-20. That’s something to celebrate. The Vols are 4-2 to this point, 2-1 in the SEC and, unless the bottom falls out, will probably be no worse than fourth in the SEC East this year. Don’t you Big Orange fans want that Pittsburgh game back?
But here comes Ole Miss. Johnny Rebel, under head coach Lane Kiffin, has put up some impressive offensive numbers, too. Don’t you know Kiffin would like to put 60 on the board in Knoxville Saturday? He’s got weapons in quarterback Matt Corral and running back Jerrion Ealy, who had 745 yards last year. Defensive end Sam Williams is, some say, a first-round draft pick. The Vols had better be focused.
TVA better have its generators running full blast to make sure the scoreboard doesn’t run out of juice Saturday night. This could be a wild offensive encounter, unless Tennessee has another mental lapse. They need to hammer down as if Buford T. Justice was chasing the Vols.
If they don’t, Ole Miss will likely set a scoring mark for visitors at Neyland Stadium.
Editor’s note: Jim Steele is a correspondent for Magic Valley Publishing and the host of The Pressbox, which airs from 4-6 p.m., Monday-Thursday on WRJB, 95.9 FM, Camden.