Value Beyond Victory

It wasn't the type of win most Big Orange fans wanted, but its just the type of win their team needed to test its poise, heart and toughness. It was the first time in 2007 UT came from behind in the fourth quarter to snatch victory from the grasp of defeat.

No doubt there were things the Vols could have done much better, but not in the fourth quarter when they scored 16 points on three precision drives.

Yes, they were blessed with some good fortune. That's a condition that tends to follow football teams that make the most of their breaks. We forget the lucky breaks that befall losing teams because they don't convert them into wins. The story line is simple. Tennessee had an off day but still managed to beat a motivated and capable SEC opponent. That's a characteristic of teams that string together winning streaks and contend for titles, and so, it comes as no surprise the Volunteers have won four straight since the 41-17 setback at Alabama. Or that they have taken eight straight in Neyland Stadium. Or that they have won seven of eight since the beatdown in G-town, where the Alligators grow so mean.

A road win Saturday in Lexington will put Tennessee in the SEC Championship game in Atlanta. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a long way from Berkley, Calif., where the season began on Labor Day weekend three months ago.

However the focus now is Kentucky which has faded after a fast start and was beaten by Mississippi State the last lime the Wildcats played at Commonwealth Stadium. On the other hand, they beat LSU in Lexington, and on the very next Saturday played Florida to the wire before losing a squeaker.

Kentucky has the personnel and system to give the Vols fits on defense, which might indicate a shootout similar to the 38-35 contest in 2001 or the 37-31 fireworks display in 2004 is in store. Naturally the Vols won both of those games — as they have every year since 1984 —via the comeback route.

Only two UT games this season have been closer than 12 points. The Vols won the first one in overtime against South Carolina despite blowing a 21-0 second half lead. Against a better defense vs. Vanderbilt, Tennessee's O overcame a 15-point fourth-quarter deficit. The M.O. of that comeback was more impressive than deficit it erased. There were big play contributions from the offense, defense and special teams. Intensity across the board and the kind of unified performance that profiles three phases on one page. It could be a sign of some very good things to come this year, and next.

Learning to play as a team is the first step. Learning to win as a team can take longer. Clearly Tennessee is making progress toward becoming a team that knows how to win. Saturday's victory underscores that contention. And it's better preparation for what lies ahead than a big blowout would have been.

Sometimes a team has to be driven to the edge of the abyss before peering into its competitive soul and taking account of victory's price.

Here's the top to bottom offensive ratings for the Tennessee-Vanderbilt game. Grades of 90-100 are regarded as championship quality. Grades of 80-89 equate to top 25 worthy, grades of 70-79 are winning marks. Grades of 60-69 are passing but problematical and won't be good enough to defeat a quality opponent. Any grade below 60 is considered failing. Each score will be followed by a brief comment. Special teams grade is included with defense. Further analysis to follow.

RECEIVERS (90) Solid games from Lucas Taylor, Austin Rogers and Josh Briscoe who combined for 20 catches, 197 yards and one touchdown each. That's nearly 60 percent of the Vols offensive production. They're ability to get open on the short routes and make catches under pressure kept the sticks moving in the fourth quarter as the Vols picked up 13 of their 22 first downs through the air. Briscoe had the longest reception of the day at 27 yards. This group doesn't produce a lot of big plays or a high YAC total, but it is consistently productive and red zone certified. Not much from the tight ends as Chris Brown had nine yards on four catches. Still looking for that deep threat and more depth.

OFFENSIVE LINE (87) The offensive line spent most of its time on the sideline in the second and third quarters Saturday, as the ‘Dores controlled the ball for 20:00 combined in those stanzas. However Tennessee came out smoking at the beginning, moving the game's first possession 75 yards in nine plays for a touchdown. In the fourth quarter the Vols scored on two 10-play drives covering 72 and 83 yards. It also moved Daniel Lincoln in scoring range with a six-play, 16-yard drive. There was some pressure on Ainge but he wasn't sacked, and Arian Foster had a lot of running room en route to another 100-yard game. The O-line got some good surge on a pair of QB sneaks that picked up key first downs for the Vols. Talent is beginning to meld into a cohesive unit.

RUNNING BACKS (83) To be accurate this category is Mr. Foster who accounted for 106 net yards, while the rest of UT's ball carriers combined for minus one. He also had 34 yards on three receptions. Tennessee got away from him too soon in the middle of the game when he looked to be wearing on the defense. He was also limited in the second half because the Vols were in a catch-up mode. Nevertheless he still averaged 5.8 yards per carry and merited more than 19 attempts.

QUARTERBACK (82) Ainge gets high marks for bringing the Vols back. The same applies to Coach Cutt who helped get him back in rhythm with the two-step passing game. The errant lateral at the end of the first half wasn't what UT needed from its senior signal caller. And there were times Ainge seemed frustrated and rattled by Vanderbilt's pressure. Still he had the poise to fight through adversity and was cold hard cash down the stretch.

OVERALL (85) This doesn't score high for style points but there was a true grit quality to it that lends this team an added dimension. It should pay further dividends next week — maybe beyond.

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