Vols better than they've been in a long time

There's no such thing as a moral victory. But there is such a thing as improvement.

Look, I'm just like you. 

I snap participation trophies in half in front of crying kids all the time. I think moral victories should be reserved for the Jacksonville Jaguars. I rip up the Halloween card my grandma sends me every year with a $15 check inside. Didn't earn it. 

But let's set those principles aside for a second and look objectively at what Tennessee, the team with the dubious distinction of "best four-loss team in the land", has done over the past couple of weeks since being outplayed in a 24-20 loss to Arkansas in early October. That loss sent Vol Nation into a pit of despair, asking questions about the coaching staff, the talent on the field and the meaning of life.

There was basically a pass to lie down as most fans, analysts and observers believed the Vols were staring down the barrel of a 2-5 start. 

Tennessee came in to face then-No. 19 Georgia in the midst of a tailspin and promptly went down 24-3. For a team used to blowing leads instead of never having them, this was new territory. Yet despite being down by 21 with boos reigning down from Neyland Stadium like it was a game in Philly, Tennessee fought back against one of the best statisitcal defenses (No. 25 total currently) to reclaim the lead and eventually win the game to beat its hated SEC Eastern Division rival for the first time since 2009. Sure, the Bulldogs were playing without their best player and they won't be confused with a Top 10 UGA outfit, but the win was more than a consolation prize for a team desperately searching for something tangible to showcase its marked improvement from last season's 7-6 campaign. 

Tennessee didn't just beat Georgia. It put up its best offensive performance of the season (300+ passing, 200+ rushing) with its back firmly up against the wall. 

The real litmus test, though, came the next week at Alabama, a team that owned an eight-game win streak over Tennessee coming in and had thoroughly dominated the Vols since 2009. So what did Butch Jones' team do? They scored a first quarter touchdown on the Tide for the first time since 2010. They held a lead in the fourth quarter against Lord Saban's squad for the first time since Miley Cyrus was Hannah Montana. They outrushed Bama. Some teams would hang a banner for that.

In the end, they lost the brief lead they acquired in the fourth quarter and fell to Alabama for the ninth straight time. And there's no doubt the 'L' Tennessee took last Saturday looks no different in the column than any of the others. But this one just feels different. Not to the players and coaches, who were adamant they took no solace in playing a Top 10 Alabama unit toe-to-toe. To me, though, it did, and it shows that this Tennessee team is on the cusp of something great. 

Did we mention it's been done after losing two starters on the offensive line after some of the most heart-wrenching losses you can experience as a team? This Vols team went into Tuscaloosa with two freshmen on the O-line. That's like drag racing Marshawn Lynch with two really sturdy spare tires. Injuries have decimated the Vols, losing two starters before the season and two more during it, but this team still has 8-4 and a bowl game staring it in the face, and it would be unfair to refuse to acknowledge that as real, tangible improvement from last season. 

This team could have had a higher ceiling, especially with the way it blew two games it had no business losing. And it's totally fair to wholly criticize those losses in every facet. But don't let the pain of the post-Fulmer years cloud your judgement of where this team currently is. There have been some monumental collapses that needed to be addressed, especially from a coaching standpoint, but it appears Butch Jones is learning and the game plan the past two weeks has put Tennessee in a position to win. 

That's not a moral victory. But it's improvement, and it should be seen as such. 

I think I'll cash that check from grandma after all.

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