Before Tennessee took to the field to battle Clemson in the Orange Bowl, I had concerns.
I think I stood in a long line of folks.
I remember thinking how the moment was too big for the temporarily-minted No. 1-ranked Vols as they were beaten at Georgia.
I said then, as I do now, the Vols are back, but they aren’t “there” yet. For Tennessee to consistently be listed among the elite, like Georgia and Alabama, it would need deeper personnel. I still believe that.
So the Vols headed to Miami to face ACC champ Clemson, a team that has won a few national titles recently, a program that consistently plays on a big stage like the Orange Bowl.
Tennessee hadn’t been to a major bowl since 1999 and had a resume that demonstrated it had a knack for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
In baseball, it’s called turning a triple into a single.
You get the drift, though. Since 2008, Tennessee had suffered about as many losing seasons as it had from 1926 to 2005. This program wasn’t used to the glow of the bright spotlight.
Add to that the fact that offensive coordinator Alex Golesh had taken the South Florida job, top receivers Cedric Tillman and Jaylin Hyatt were opting out for greener pastures in the NFL and Joe Milton III had a dubious history.
Then take a look at the stats. Clemson snapped the ball 100 times, ventured into Tennessee territory seven times in the first quarter, 10 for the game. The Vols had a ton of penalties, too.
It should have been a blood bath.
But Tennessee bent, didn’t break, and beat the Tigers 31-14.
A large amount of credit goes to the defense, which, according to Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, Tennessee doesn’t play. Aaron Beasley was on a mission with 14 tackles, 10 solo, four for loss, and two sacks. A good MVP case could have been made for him.
Then there was Milton, who was more than serviceable at quarterback. He threw receivers open, found wide-open guys, and threaded a few needles.
Consider, too, that the Vols, early enrollees included, got 15 pre-bowl practices. That’s like another spring workout.
Tennessee grew up a lot this year and that will bode well next year. The Vols need another good recruiting class or two and it’s plausible Tennessee could be mentioned with the Bamas and Georgias of the college football world.
Not bad for a team flipping burgers on championship week.
Jim Steele is a correspondent for Magic Valley Publishing and the host of The Pressbox radio show, which airs 4-6 p.m. CT Monday-Thursday on WRJB, 95.9 FM, Camden, Tenn.