Shades of '88?

When an 0-6 Tennessee team won 38-25 at Memphis in 1988, no one envisioned that victory sparking a dramatic turnaround for the Vols ... but it did. The Big Orange won out to finish 5-6 in '88, then rode that momentum to an 11-1 mark in' 89.

Could history repeat? Perhaps, though probably not to that extreme. A 2-6 Vol team won 50-14 at Memphis last Saturday and has a legitimate chance to win out this season against Ole Miss (today at noon), Vanderbilt (Nov. 20) and Kentucky (Nov. 27).

I'm certainly not suggesting Tennessee will go 11-1 next fall but I will say this: I covered the '88 Vols for the late Knoxville Journal, and that team was no better than the 2010 Vols. So, last Saturday's win at Memphis just might prove to be a turning point for the program, much as a win at Memphis was in 1988.

Obviously, a 36-point beat-down of an awful Tiger team didn't solve all of Tennessee's problems. But that win did give the Vols some confidence and some momentum, and that can be a pretty deadly combination for a young team brimming with upside and enthusiasm.

Even head coach Derek Dooley conceded that the smashing victory did a lot for Tennessee's team psyche.

"What we have to do is continue to build on some of the success we had last week," he said. "I'm sure our team will be energized because of it. We'll see how we do."

Junior tailback Tauren Poole also believes the Vols are energized at present, noting that the blowout of Memphis "just shows what we can do."

It certainly showed what freshman quarterback Tyler Bray can do. Making his first college start, he torched the Tiger secondary for 19 completions in 33 attempts, 325 yards and five touchdowns. In the process, he won the respect of his teammates.

"We can continue to protect Bray more, give him even more time," Poole said. "You see when he has time that he's going to make plays."

There has been very little for Tennessee's fans or players to be excited about this fall. Bray's performance at Memphis changed that. There's a little more bounce in the step of players and fans alike these days.

"Any time you score a lot of points, it brings a lot of hope for where we're headed," Dooley said. "But I also caution them all (fans and players) to not get too excited because it's one game. But it's fun to sit there and you put up 40 in a half. It's fun to watch. It was fun to watch on the sidelines. It energized the players. I think it energized the receivers. They were running faster and faster as the game went on."

With Memphis' defense focused on stopping Bray and his wideouts, Poole was able to rush for 101 yards on just 16 carries last Saturday night. He'd like to do more of the same today vs. Ole Miss.

"As long as Bray continues to find the open receivers," Poole said, "it's going to open up the run game even more."

Of course, the fact that Tennessee threw the ball at will against Memphis doesn't mean the Vols will come out wingin' it today against Ole Miss.

"We out-personneled them, too," Dooley said of the Tigers. "I'm just a little cautious to be sitting here saying we're going to be slinging it on everybody."

Bray's performance wasn't the only positive development in the Memphis game. Tennessee recorded a season-high five sacks. That took some pressure off of the Vols' patchwork secondary and gave the front four an emotional lift.

"We can't leave those guys out to dry," senior end Chris Walker said of Vol defensive backs. "We're putting it on our shoulders, and we have to get to the quarterback more.

"It felt good to finally put a complete game together as a D-line, as far as rushing the passer."

Maybe there are more "complete games" in Tennessee's future. And maybe - just maybe - the win at Memphis in 2010 will prove to be a turning point for the program ... much as the win at Memphis was in 1988.


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