What was rock bottom?
Was it Fulmer's slow death, culminating in a press conference and a loss to Wyoming in the same week? Was it January, when a head coach dared to leave the University of Tennessee in the middle of the night? Was it September, when we couldn't count to eleven on the final play of what would've been the biggest win of the year? Or was it the weeks that followed, with a 41-14 loss at Georgia and the worst ever loss to Alabama in Knoxville?
I'll tell you what it wasn't. It wasn't today.
For the first time, we can definitively say that this team has made tangible progress. However down we were, we're not there anymore. The corner has been turned. And this program is moving forward again.
The signs have been there all month, made clear with a new quarterback and an easier schedule (though make no mistake, that was a very good offense wearing blue out there). But you couldn't be really sure until today. Had the Vols lost to Kentucky, even their fifth straight bowl eligible edition, the momentum would've been derailed, and progress would've been questioned. Beating Tiger High, a four win Ole Miss team, and Vanderbilt before losing to UK for the first time in 26 years? If that was progress, it could only be defined as such after the fact, much later in the story if the 2011 Vols made serious improvement.
But with a win today - and not a fluke, not a lucky break, but a four quarter effort that saw the Vols become predator instead of prey in the second half - Derek Dooley has taken a team and a program at rock bottom and led us to our first step in the right direction. Not later, but now.
He did it with a group of 15 seniors that I am so proud of, and could not be happier for. They were there today in the middle of it all:
- Denarius Moore put on the most impressive individual display a wide receiver has had here since Robert Meachem against LSU in 2006, and I'll give that one the nod only because Meachem did it with Baby Crompton against a future NFL secondary. Moore had 7 catches for 205 yards (including three catches of 45+ yards) and a touchdown; Kentucky simply had no one on their roster who could cover him. Q: How many players here at Wide Receiver U have ever had two 200 yard games in a single season? A: Denarius Moore. Q: How many players here at Wide Receiver U have ever had two 200 yard games in their entire career? A: Denarius Moore.
- Gerald Jones and Luke Stocker finished off the senior combo that lit up Kentucky's secondary for 18 of Tyler Bray's 20 completions and 337 of his 354 yards. Da'Rick Rogers and Justin Hunter took a backseat, because this was Senior Day. GJones caught a touchdown, and was once again the perfect complement to Moore - DMo hurt them deep, GJones hurt them everywhere else. And Stocker? The Berea, KY native saved his best for his home state, and his very best for UK defensive back Mychal Bailey (6'0" 185), who made the mistake of trying to hit Stocker (6'6" 253) straight up in the open field. Truck stick, son.
- Daniel Lincoln missed his first field goal of the year, which could have been due in part to Matt Simms filling in for Chad Cunningham as holder ("The laces were in!"). But he atoned in a big way in the fourth quarter, splitting the uprights from 36 yards to give the Vols a two possession lead, and what ended up being the final points of the day. Danny Boy ends his senior season 10 of 11. Not bad.
- The defense? Gerald Williams forced a fumble, and Chris Walker had a sack. It was Nick Reveiz who got the loudest cheer running thru the T - and fittingly with this group, not for his talent, but for his heart. Both were on display today, as he picked up 8 tackles to give him a team-high 94 for the year, and recovered the end zone fumble in the first quarter that turned the entire game around.
On his postgame radio show, Dooley said he told the team that you don't always get what you want, but you usually end up getting what you deserve. These seniors deserved to go out the right way, and today they earned it. Their play today was just the latest chapter of a season-long display of perseverance. Whatever you believe rock bottom to be, these seniors were there and could've chosen to never climb out. But their decision to keep coming to work, keep believing and participating in the process, and keep setting the example for the young guys on this team paid off this month, and especially today.
This November run was about the seniors, but it was also about the future, and Tyler is his name. Bray's work in this stretch goes a little something like this:
- South Carolina: 9 of 15, 159 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT
- Memphis: 19 of 33, 325 yards, 5 TD, 0 INT
- Ole Miss: 18 of 34, 323 yards, 3 TD, 0 INT
- Vanderbilt: 16 of 27, 232 yards, 2 TD, 2 INT
- Kentucky: 20 of 38, 354 yards, 2 TD, 2 INT
Bray has 1,537 passing yards this year, passing Casey Clausen today for the most passing yards by a true freshman in school history. More than Clausen, more than Ainge, more than Manning. In fewer starts. With lesser talent around him. With the bowl game still to go.
Okay, so he hasn't been playing against great defenses, you say. I'll give you that, and depending on the bowl opponent and his performance there, maybe we go into the offseason with an inflated opinion of a quarterback who can't really take the next step until he does something good against the Floridas and Georgias of the world. But think about this: the Vols have a chance to finish the season with the same record as Florida, a better record than Georgia...and the same record as Lane Kiffin's 2009 team. There is zero doubt that the 2009 Vols are better than the 2010 version...but 7-6 would look so much better this December than last. And yeah, Georgia beat us like a drum and Florida for the sixth year in a row...but who's trending in the right direction? Florida picked up the shovel this year, and Georgia may still be digging...but the Vols are climbing. Both teams may still have more talent next year, but I'll certainly take where we are right now.
And while the Vol offense has been shredding subpar defenses, the Vol defense has quietly given up no more than 14 points each week in the month of November. Doing it to our in-state friends is one thing. But the team we saw today was the third best offense in the SEC, and Ole Miss is fifth. And in both cases, the Vols bent but did not break, refused to give up the big play (Randall Cobb had 13 catches but only 116 yards), and scored 8 combined turnovers against the Rebels and Wildcats.
And finally, to re-emphasize the point: Tennessee has become a fourth quarter team. Instead of closing up shop like we did against Oregon, we fight every play. Instead of being unable to get our defense off the field and giving up points like we did against Florida, today the Vols stopped Kentucky on each of their final four drives. During the middle of October my Dad pointed out that we were probably going to look like Kentucky and/or Vanderbilt by November - beat up physically and mentally, depleted with no depth to fall back on and the will to win beaten out of us. Instead, today the Vols did what Tennessee teams have been doing to Kentucky for twenty-six years: win the fourth quarter, want it more down the stretch, and dictate the outcome to the Wildcats.
This season could've been over, and we could be here talking about this entire season being a wash - that you couldn't possibly learn anything about this team or its coach with this roster. Instead, this roster got this program turned around, this coach moved us from Point A to Point B...and with a firm foundation and an eye to the future, Year One is a success, and we're going bowling.
Season ticket holders were emailed a bowl application tonight, which included only the Music City, Liberty, and Birmingham Bowls as options. That should put to rest any thoughts of sneaking into the Gator Bowl should Georgia falter - and rightfully so, because any 7-5 team should get to go ahead of us. But every single sign points to Nashville, and the chatter about UT-UNC in the Awkward Athletic Director Handshake Bowl (TM) is getting louder.
The bowl will be fun, especially an in-state destination. The practices will certainly help even more. But for everyone involved - from Dooley and Hamilton, to the seniors, to the freshmen, to us - this was one of the more satisfying victories we've had in recent memory. We deserved victory today, and we got it. And for all of our talk about what could've happened in Baton Rouge, it was a fitting end to this season for today to be our biggest win.
Consider the britches dusted off, and consider the worst behind us. Once more...it's great to be a Tennessee Vol.
(BONUS COVERAGE: If you weren't at the game today, you missed the Kentucky fans booing our basketball team as they walked off after they were recognized for winning the NIT in the first quarter. You know, it used to be that if we trotted out our basketball team in front of Kentucky fans, they would've laughed. I'm glad we're now worth the effort and the venom. Wait til basketball season.)