A less-than-impressive win over Chattanooga was sandwiched in between a heartbreaking loss to Florida and a second-half dismantling at Ole Miss. Sure, all things considered. the defense played well. The offense, that was fortunate to get three points on the board, was just getting worse. Coleman Thomas went down, further depleting the already banged-up offensive line. Starting quarterback Justin Worley left the game with a shoulder injury, which ended up being a lot more serious than some may have anticipated at the time.
Remember the feeling Volunteer fans? Remember the pessimists that came out in full force predicting a 1-7 finish in the SEC and a school worse 4-8 regular season record?
A new quarterback was given a shot, a redshirt was burned and despite a 14-point loss to No. 4 Alabama, optimism began to creep back into the fan base. All it took was a comeback with a probability of less than 1% and a 34-point beatdown of Kentucky to completely rejuvenate the fan base.
It has now been a month since the Rebels sent a sea of Orange home not just doubting things about this team but the future of the program.
On Saturday the SEC East leaders come to Neyland Stadium where a packed house of Volunteer fans are now feeling confident that their team will play the role of spoiler while clinching a bowl berth at the same time.
Those who were starting to gather things and step off the Butch Jones bandwagon are suddenly strapped back in. The “Caretaker of Tennessee football” said basically that these last 30 days have been about staying true to the process.
“We’ve talked about a consistency approach,” Jones said. “The power of one and these guys have really lived that.”
This team has been through some challenges. Close heartbreaking losses, blowouts, injuries and off-the-field distractions.
“We knew with a young football team that we would have to stay the course,” Jones said. “Not let any clutter or distraction get in our way.”
The allegations against senior linebacker A.J. Johnson and redshirt sophomore Michael Williams will be the biggest distraction the team has had to face all year. Yet, the players have all said they are keeping their focus on Missouri and getting bowl eligible.
“We can’t worry about that,” sophomore Cam Sutton said. “It doesn’t pertain the field. So we just gotta come out and be prepared."
It’s not easy to replace one of the school’s top tacklers of all time but Tennessee may not have a choice. They seek Tennessee’s first three game winning streak since 2010.
“The goal hasn’t changed,” Jones said. “Our goal is to be the best football team we can possibly be. Our seniors, who are veteran players, have really held this team together and then the addition of this freshman class and their different. Their mindset is different, their mentality is different.”
Jones also brought up the interesting detail that every FBS team they have played this year will have the opportunity to go to a bowl game and FCS opponent Chattanooga is undefeated in the Southern Conference.
“There was no secret about it,” Jones said. “If you look at our schedule. We were challenged right from the get-go.”
Whether it was the schedule easing up a little bit, Joshua Dobbs or simply the team coming together this season is laying the base for an SEC East title run in the next couple of years. Combine that a with the more-than-reasonable chance of finishing with an 8 and 5 record and that night when 4-8 seemed like a possibility seems so long ago.