By Jim Steele
Could it be that Tennessee is putting all together finally?
I hope you are sitting down, but that may very well be the case.
The Vols turned in their best performance of the season, arguably, Saturday night when it dismantled South Carolina 41-20 in front of 119,715 in Knoxville. Tennessee got it done on the ground, through the air and on defense.
As the song says, it’s about “darn” time.
This is more in line with what I thought Tennessee should be this year. Yes, I know Joe Milton is no Hendon Hooker. But he’s serviceable, even though everyone is clamoring to see freshman phenom Nico Iamaleava ensconce himself into the quarterback role (psst … he’s not ready). Milton did throw two picks Saturday, but his overall numbers weren’t bad: 21-32-1-2 for 239 yards. I didn’t much like the two interceptions, and I hope this is not a harbinger of what’s to come, but overall, he wasn’t a liability.
The Vols got it done on the ground, too. They ran for 239 yards, led by Jaylen Wright, who carried 16 times for 123 yards and a score. Jabari Small toted 11 times for 59 yards and a touchdown. Dylan Sampson is exposing himself as a dynamo for the Vols. He demonstrated some explosion with nine carries for 49 yards and a score. I think he is going to be special.
Let’s not forget the defense. Kamal Hadden had a pix-six that spanned 28 yards. South Carolina quarterback Spencer Rattler, who once was a Heisman hopeful in his days at Oklahoma, looked more like he did in Norman when he got benched. He carried 11 times for 19 yards. The Vols did a nice job containing him. Meanwhile, the secondary bent but did not break. Sure, Rattler was 24-35 passing, but was limited to 169 yards. Consider, too, the Vols sacked him six times.
Who are these imposters? Or were the imposters in uniform at Gainesville a few weeks ago?
It really irked me when I saw that Kentucky defeated Florida Saturday and did so somewhat handily. Tennessee wasn’t completely healthy that night, sure, but it wasn’t ready to play, either.
But that was then, and this is now. Was Saturday night’s effort perfect? No. Tennessee had a couple of dumb penalties, but their flag tally was better than it’s been. The Vols were whistled seven times for 58 yards. Better, but still too much.
Now comes the open date. I’m a bit ambivalent about the timing of this off day. It seems that the Vols are picking up steam. But the break will give Tennessee time to work on a few things, get healthy and prepare for a Jekyll-and-Hyde Texas A&M team. The Vols haven’t beaten the Aggies since the 2005 Cotton Bowl. The Vols won that game 38-7 in a game that wasn’t as close as the score.
This is no time to rest on laurels. A&M has talent, but isn’t very well coached, as the folks in College Station will attest. The Aggie faithful are getting a bit impatient with this regime, which hasn’t really produced over the last several years as it was expected to. A&M coach Jimbo Fisher is laughing all the way to the bank, though, literally. His buyout as of this week is $77 million. Whoever brokered that deal needs to stay out of Colorado.
This is a game Tennessee should win, but there is an inclination to hold your breath anytime this team takes the field.
Tennessee is 4-1, which isn’t so bad at the moment. It evened its ledger in the SEC to 1-1. Having this extra week to prepare for the Aggies isn’t necessarily a bad thing, dependent upon how the Vols handle the open date, as Phillip Fulmer used to say.
Another thing to consider: Tennessee’s fate rest in its own hands. The Vols control their own destiny. But the toughest part of their schedule looms ahead.
Tennessee could set the stage for a stellar run in the second half of the season … or it could be the team that’s a mystery to everyone but opposing teams. I ask this simple question: Will the real Tennessee Volunteer football team join Slim Shady and please stand up?
Jim Steele is a correspondent for Magic Valley Publishing.