Major mood swing

Thumping Mississippi State 34-3 last Saturday didn't elevate Tennessee into the SEC championship picture but it did elevate the Vol mood considerably heading into this weekend's showdown with No. 2 Alabama.

After playing poorly in Games 1 through 6, Tennessee finally put together a solid performance in Game 7. That provides a little confidence and momentum heading into Game 8, which could be a real benefit for the Vols.

"It's huge," sophomore quarterback Nick Stephens said. "It's something that carries over into the next week. The guys are excited about this week in practice, excited about this Saturday. Having our O-line and running game play as well as they did this past weekend is something to build off of."

Junior defensive end Wes Brown agrees that finally putting together a good performance was crucial heading into a big game like Bama.

"We needed that desperately," he said. "We needed a game like that to prepare us for the No. 2 team in the country. We really needed a win under our belt for the confidence factor. Having a game like that against a team like Mississippi State – a physical team like Alabama – really helps us from the confidence factor and getting ready to see the same variation of runs as Alabama does."

Tennessee's play in Games 1 through 6 was so mistake-prone that the Vols found themselves wondering what else could go wrong.

"You don't want to get that mindset but we didn't come to Tennessee to start 2-4," Brown said. "Nobody that wears Orange wants that, either. We were frustrated but to get a good win against Mississippi State really helped."

Now in his third decade of coaching, Vol head man Phillip Fulmer realizes better than most the positive impact a successful outing can have on the psyche of a team.

"Winning solves a lot of problems and a lot of issues," he said. "It's been a real battle because we've been our own worst enemy. To go play a complete game like we did on both sides of the ball – win the kicking game and not have silly penalties – it gives you momentum. It gives you a good feeling about yourself, instead of that cloud ... wondering when it's going to rain on you."

The rain Tennessee encountered was no spring shower; it was a tropical thunderstorm. The Vols were awful in Games 1 through 6, particularly on offense. Against Mississippi State, however, they quit stopping themselves – committing zero offensive penalties and zero turnovers. Still, that left their offensive coordinator more relieved than pleased.

"It should be expected," Dave Clawson said. "Whenever you're excited that you DIDN'T do something stupid, that's kind of a low standard. We shouldn't have been making those penalties all year. Maybe it took really getting burned by it to have guys buy into it.

"I'm still disappointed that we even had those issues to begin with, so I'm not ready to jump up and cheer because we had one game that we didn't do it. Hopefully, it means there's an understanding of how badly those plays hurt us."

Fulmer believes the offensive ineptitude that characterized Tennessee's first six outings can be traced to inexperience at one key position.

"The difficulty comes, honestly, with the youthfulness at quarterback," he said. "Those guys pull the trigger. If you watch on Sundays when the NFL's playing, if those guys are playing special, a lot of good things happen for you. That's why I'd like to see Nick go ahead and take that next step as a young guy. He has certainly done well. He has the moxie about him to make a play. We just need a few more."

In an effort to limit the drive-killing penalties Tennessee was incurring each Saturday, Fulmer hired officials to "work" recent practices, throwing flags whenever they saw infractions. He also made workouts more taxing to give them a game-type feel. The result was improved play in Game 7.

"It's very encouraging," he said. "We had the officials on point in practice. Instead of (first-teamers) going against scout-teamers, we made the practices much more physical. Maybe the game-like practices carried over better to our Saturday play."

Whatever the cause, defensive coordinator John Chavis readily admits that beating Mississippi State "makes you feel better." Still, he insists the Vols never got down on themselves.

"Let me say this about our football team: In the toughest of times they have been tremendous," he said. "You can say our backs were against the wall, and that's probably a good statement, but they have responded. That's the thing I've been proudest of. No matter what the circumstances have been, they've been willing to continue to listen and try to better. They want to win. They're competitive. Those guys want to win more than anybody.

"When you get a win you feel better about yourself. There's no question about that. We're in a society that appreciates winning, that appreciates people that are on top. That's where these guys want to be. Doing it (practicing hard) after a win is a whole lot easier but it's a credit to the young people we're dealing with that they were able to do it after some very disappointing losses. I'm proud of them for that."


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