A Quiet Confidence On Rocky Top

Shhhh. Listen. You hear that?

Over here on ESPN.com there's Chris Low hurling praise Tennessee's way in his latest SEC blog post. Then there's Granny Lou Holtz commenting that he "really likes" Tennessee, even if he still calls our quarterback "Taylor Bray." Late Saturday night, Kirk Herbstreit effectively ate his words after picking the Cincinnati upset by paying the Vols a bunch of lip service, saying on the late-night college football wrap-up on ESPN that all of a sudden with Tyler Bray, Justin Hunter and Da'Rick Rogers, the Vols have the type of difference-makers we haven't had in a long time. Pat Forde woke up Sunday to a breakfast of crow.

It's quiet, but it's there. It's steady: A buzz building across the nation, as people everywhere begin to take notice of something we've believed for a while -- this UT team has the chance to be pretty good.

Heading into Florida week, as a Tennessee fan you've got to love the fact that -- even though the Oklahoma-Florida State battle will get the headlines and the Miami-Ohio State tilt will draw national publicity for all the wrong reasons -- UT-UF in the Swamp will at least, at last have a little bit of that old-time feeling again.

And it didn't take Lane Kiffin piping in white noise and concocting headlines to do it.

We've all got a reason to be excited. Even if we're grounded in the knowledge that there are still numerous holes to fill and miles to go, there is that triumvirate of talent on the offensive side that has sparked a belief that we actually CAN beat Florida this weekend. Sure, we always "believe," but that's normally rooted in blind fandom. This year, there are actual reasons to believe:

  • Bray's 698 yards through two games is the most a UT quarterback has ever gotten to start the season, and our offense is putting up PlayStation numbers.
  • Even the areas on the team that haven't been spotless this season have gotten better, and there is a reason to believe this team can grow week-to-week even in the spots where they aren't dominant.
  • Finally, what do we really know about Florida? Like every early-season Gators schedule I can remember, the reptiles have played -- and blown out -- two no-names heading into the Showdown at the Swamp. A lot of years, that has been beneficial to UF because they know what they have and nobody else does. This year with a new coaching staff and system, they're going to have to adjust on the fly if UT comes out and hits them in the mouth. That's encouraging.

Regardless of how the fans feel, that isn't going to help Tennessee beat Florida. It's what the players believe that is going to spark confidence and a belief that they aren't an SEC doormat anymore. The thing that has to be most encouraging is you know these guys have so much confidence built up after blowing out Montana and Cincinnati, that they think they will win. Just listening to Rogers and Hunter after the Cincy win, you could tell they've got that swagger going. We all know Bray is brash, and that's exactly the kind of attitude you need heading into an environment that hostile. The feeling has permeated the team that there's something possibly different this season.

But for all the talk about Bray, Hunter and Rogers [and rightfully so], the Vols gave me many other reasons to be hopeful with Saturday's slam of Cincinnati. Some things that were glaring issues against the Grizzlies maybe didn't completely get remedied against the Bearcats, but they got better. If there's as much improvement in these things from Week 2 to Week 3 as there was between Week 1 and Week 2, the Vols could stun the college football world with an actual, real-life, golly-gee win in Gainesville next week -- not just moral victory-style.

  • The defense. We're starting here because, while I don't know how much this unit "improved" between Weeks 1 & 2,it certainly improved within the Cincinnati game. There were definite big plays allowed, highlighted by Cincy star running back Isaiah Pead's 65-yard touchdown scamper on the third play from scrimmage, and Justin Coleman and Art Evans getting burned once a piece -- those cannot be tolerated. But there were also three stops playing a great offense that were very encouraging. The two fourth-and-short stands near midfield seized momentum, turning a game UT looked like it had under control into a blowout. Then, the goal-line stand led to Neyland Stadium being louder than it has in at least a couple of years and gave the defense its signature stand of the year.

    When you take away the first two drives by the Bearcats -- with the second one aided by a garbage pass interference call on Izeaua Lanier -- UT allowed just nine points the rest of the day, and the remaining UC touchdown came after Raijon Neal fumbled at Tennessee's 22. Sure, there were negatives like Pead's long run and allowing 396 total yards, but that was one of the two best offenses we'll face all season. And, within the game, the defense provided plenty of back-breaking stops.

    I don't think Florida's offense will be as high-powered as Cincinnati' [though UF's defense is about 4 million times better], and this game was a great warm-up for the Gators.
  • The running game. It still wasn't the greatest, only gaining 126 net yards with a 3.6 average, but it was better than the embarrassing effort against Montana. The Vols were able to run enough to keep Cincinnati honest up front, but honestly, they didn't have to run a lot. Still, Tauren Poole looked a thousand times better in gaining 101 yards on 21 carries for an average of nearly 5 ypc. Lane and Raijon Neal both fumbled, though, and there were a few times the backs were stuffed in the backfield, so there's room to grow. Plenty of room to grow. But, hey, it was better against a team with better talent. Maybe UT will run enough against Florida to do the things in the passing game it wants to do.
  • Mo better receivers. Bray has his two star receivers, and that's great. But he needed other people to step up, and they definitely did Saturday. Seven different receivers caught balls, and tight end Mychal Rivera was the presence I'd hoped he would be this season, snagging six balls for 54 yards. Poole had three catches for 30 yards, Zach Rogers had a pair for 25 yards and a nice touchdown, Ben Bartholomew won the fullback job in the week and had a catch for 8 yards, and how about Brendan Downs? The true freshman tight end played very physical and found a couple of seams for 32 yards on two catches. It was great to see Bray spread it around a little better.
  • Alive and kicking. Finally, I was happy to see Derek Dooley give Michael Palardy a shot at redemption with the late field-goal try that he nailed. We will need him next week almost certainly. Palardy looked great -- much, much better -- on his kickoffs, and I'm sure it made him feel better to nail the field goal after the early miss.

So, there was improvement in a lot of areas. There are national pundits beginning to peek in the direction of Rocky Top again. And these players have played two strong games and built a reserve of confidence heading into the first game -- and perhaps biggest game -- of the conference schedule.

I won't predict a win, but I will say that I'm already so excited for Saturday to get here that I spent my entire Sunday watching replays of the Bearcats game, jotting down notes, writing multiple posts and clicking through the Derek Dooley Show two different times. I am addicted to this excitement about Tennessee football again. Isn't it great to be confident again? To hope? To dream about beating Florida? There is nothing to lose for UT in that game besides something that nobody thought they had in the first place -- a shot to make it to Atlanta.

That possibility seems so far away right now. But at least it's a possibility, right?

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