Vols eye eight wins and a bowl, but it could’ve been so much more

By Steve Williams

When we last looked in on Tennessee football the Vols were enthused by a 38-31 come-from-behind victory over Georgia and well rested from a midseason open date as they prepared to head to Tuscaloosa to play Alabama.

However, I was moaning about how the win over Georgia could have meant so much, much more. Tennessee, not Florida, would have been in the driver’s seat of the SEC East race, I wrote, had the Vols not lost double-digit leads to the Gators and Arkansas earlier in the season.

I was hanging on to one last thread of hope, as far as UT’s meager chances in the SEC East race were concerned – upset the Crimson Tide and win out, and maybe Florida would lose to Georgia and drop another conference game somewhere down the stretch.

Well, as you know, the Vols put up a good fight against Alabama before falling 19-14. They were one final defensive stand from a huge win and spoiling Bama’s playoff hopes.

I was more encouraged by that loss than I was the 52-21 whipping Tennessee put on Kentucky the following week. It’s just hard to get excited about beating a team you’ve now beaten 30 out of 31 times.

In terms of momentum, the Vols seemed to take a step back despite a 27-24 win over South Carolina – a game UT led 17-0.

I was experiencing déjà vu as the Gamecocks started chipping away at the lead. But Tennessee did make a defensive play at the end to prevent another total collapse like its fans had painfully seen against Florida and Oklahoma.

Still, quarterback Josh Dobbs’ comment after the South Carolina game was alarming.

“We kind of let the foot off the pedal … the game’s not over 10 minutes into the first half,” said Dobbs. “We’ve got to keep playing.”

It wasn’t the first time the Vols have eased off the gas this season. Such strategy contributed to losing big games against the Sooners and Gators.

UT head coach Butch Jones said South Carolina made some schematic changes which limited some of the quarterback run packages.

Fortunately, this time, the Vols were able to coast to a win.

Tennessee was 5-4 at the time of this writing and going into its homecoming game against North Texas (1-8). UT opened as a 40 ½-point favorite. A repeat of the two teams’ 1975 meeting in Knoxville – a shocking 21-14 win by North Texas State – didn’t appear likely. The Vols were expected to easily log win No. 6, which would qualify them for a bowl game.

UT, 3-3 in conference action, will play at Missouri this coming Saturday night and host in-state rival Vanderbilt in its regular season finale on Nov. 28.

I have a feeling the road game at Mizzou is going to be very challenging for Tennessee, even though the Tigers are 1-5 in SEC play. Racial tension on the Missouri campus recently led to its football team declaring it would boycott the BYU game if the university president didn’t resign. The school’s president and chancellor have since resigned.

Missouri announced the 7:15 night game will be an “all Blackout” affair. Mizzou fans are likely to take advantage of the event to unite as one and also thank the football team for its support. The Zou could really get loud.

Missouri, 3-0 against UT since joining the SEC, may need a win over the Vols to qualify for a bowl. Even more motivation for the Tigers surfaced Friday when longtime head coach Gary Pinkel announced he would be resigning at the end of the season for health reasons.

Tennessee’s finale against Vandy could end up being tougher than expected, too. The Commodores lost only 9-7 at Florida prior to their last game against Kentucky.

Yes, Florida 9, Vandy 7 … another reminder that the Vols’ season could have been so much, much more.

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