The naysayers and haters can laugh it up and poke at the bear with a stick, but we’re watching a transformation.
Saturday night, Tennessee proved to college football that it’s getting better. Is this team a national contender? No. Is this team going to challenge for the SEC East crown? Nope. Is this team going to win seven games? Possibly, but, at this stage of the game, I’d say no.
Tennessee suffered a 31-26 loss to Ole Miss, the Rebels 19th win in this 66-game series.
This team was maybe six inches from defeating No. 13 Ole Miss. Had Joe Milton’s pass been a few inches lower, or Cedric Tillman could have jumped a few inches higher, who knows? But the Vols needed to travel 90 yards in 43 seconds to win the game.
They got 80 of them and almost won the game … with their starting quarterback, center, offensive tackle and running back all out of the game. Think about that for a second.
I’m not even going to address the Ole Miss flopping, except to say this, I think the rules committee is going to take a look at this in the off-season.
Being honest, both teams were their own worst enemy Saturday night. We could what-if this game to death. What if Velus Jones doesn’t muff that punt reception? Ole Miss fans may shoot back by saying, “What if we didn’t drop those TD passes?”
Tyler Baron’s scoop and score was nullified when the officials said Matt Corral’s forward progress had stopped. That was a bad break and, in my view, bad call.
What if Tennessee hadn’t missed that 49-yard field goal with 7:15 to play in the third? They might have been driving for a game-winning field goal during that last possession, instead of needing six points. Ole Miss fans may point out the Rebels missed a field goal, too.
We could nickel and dime this thing to death, but, in the final analysis, the lowly Vols, not expected to win three games this year, were in position to knock off a nationally-ranked team and almost did it with a decimated lineup.
What does this say? This says that the Vols are showing real improvement. This team has bought in. This team doesn’t capitulate, even when things seem utterly lost. Look at the final box score. The numbers were pretty even, for the most part. That was certainly something I didn’t expect. I, incorrectly, oh by the way, thought Ole Miss would win by at least 17 points, but I thought the Vols would put 40 on the board.
The Vols are battling for their respect, their teammates and their fans. Are they back? No, not by a longshot, but they sure are a lot closer than most people thought they’d be at this point.
Consider this: with Pruitt, this team wouldn’t have been within five touchdowns and Ole Miss would have set a Neyland Stadium scoring record.
I’m really beginning to rethink this Heupel hire.
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.