Coach Fulmer greeted his players with the Auburn cheer when the team reconvened after spending Annihilation Weekend in the shelter of the bye week bunker. The polls were in absolute disarray after five of the top ten teams in the nation had been beaten. Best of all for Vol fans, the Auburn Tigers had given Florida an SEC loss. The Gators still had the head-to-head advantage over Tennessee (2-2, 0-1), but they were headed to LSU this week, and a loss there coupled with a Vol win over Georgia would put the Vols back in the lead in the East. Even this slightest ray of sunshine had Vol fans making audacious, homeristic predictions of victory and putting their innocent children in harm's way.
Of course, a bit of twisted logic was at work on Rocky Top. Rivals failing really had little to do with the question of whether we were any good, and the No. 13 Georgia Bulldogs presented several challenges. First, the Red and Black were pitting running backs Thomas Brown and Knowshon Moreno, who had just combined for 270 yards against Ole Miss, against a Tennessee rush defense that was 88th in the nation and 9th in the SEC. Second, Georgia’s punt return specialist Mikey Henderson was in the same category as Cal’s DeSean Jackson and Florida’s Brandon James, and you remembered what happened with them. There was a fair chance that if Britton Colquitt didn’t kick the ball out of bounds or force a fair catch Henderson wouldn’t be touched until he was tackled in the end zone by his own players. Third, the Bulldogs were coming to Knoxville, and while you would think that that was a good thing, the home team had lost the last four games.
And really, Florida losing to Auburn went only so far in erasing Vol fans' memories of the righteous bummer in the season opener and the 59-20 dishumiliarrassment two weeks later. No, fan sentiment on Rocky Top was still vascillating somewhere between "Fire Fulmer" and "Get the Pitchforks and Torches," and the media wasn't helping matters. Knoxville News Sentinel columnist John Pennington had been busy the bye week, and in Saturday morning’s edition, just hours before kickoff, he published a column not only critical of the program but quoting nine unidentified former Tennessee players as having some very serious concerns about the direction of Tennessee’s football program. Make no mistake, a loss to Georgia this day and the nation would witness a full blown meltdown in Knoxville.
Well, there was a meltdown all right, but it was wearing Red and Black:
Look at all those lovely red segmented lines. Georgia had seven first half possessions. Five of them were three-and-outs, they went backwards twice, and they had to punt each and every time. They gained a total of 42 yards in the first half.
In the meantime, Erik Ainge and the offense were rolling, finding the end zone on four of their seven first-half possessions. The game was essentially over by halftime with Tennessee leading 28-0, and although Georgia would score twice to Tennessee’s once in the second half, the Vols thoroughly dominated this game. The Orange and White had a 21-14 edge in first downs, including a 12-3 advantage in rushing first downs. How'd they do it? By rediscovering the traditional I formation, complete with an extra blocking back. Arian Foster shared time with Tennessee’s other RBs, but he gained 98 yards and scored three TDs. As a unit, the backs had 190 yards rushing, a 4.3 yard average, and four rushing touchdowns. Give equal portions of the credit to tight end Chris Brown, who sacrificed receiving stats for the often-thankless privilege of blocking for Foster, and the offensive line for much of Foster’s success.
And what of Tennessee's punt coverage woes? Fixed. The Vols rolled out a fancy new spread punt formation that won a post-game Best Innovation award and held the dangerous Georgia punt return unit to a mere 11 yards. Oh, and on the other side of the ball, Tennessee blocked a Georgia punt for the second year in a row. Ellix Wilson picked up this year where Sports Illustrated cover boy Antonio Wardlow left off last year, and although Wilson got himself a 15-yard penalty for removing his helmet in celebration (we called it “danc[ing] out of the bank you just robbed”), the block was certainly welcome. And oh again, Colquitt also kicked off for the first time and recorded two touchbacks, results that qualified as “big plays” with the new rule change moving the kickoff back five yards to the 30 yard line.
Ainge got a post-game award for Best Goose Egg, meaning his zero touchdowns was a good thing because it meant that the Vols were running the ball well. Ainge still went 17 of 22 for 165 yards and was only 11 yards behind Georgia’s Matthew Stafford despite the fact that Stafford was playing from behind the entire game.
The Dawg Whoopin' was only the beginning of a fine terrific wonderful glorious happy day. Not only did the Vols beat the Bulldogs, they found themselves back in the driver’s seat in the SEC East thanks to LSU beating Florida later that evening and giving the Gators their second SEC loss. And boy, what a change in attitude on Rocky Top:
Third Saturday in Blogtober's Ghost of Neyland says we own Georgia. The Vol Abroad says how 'bout them Vols and is grateful that the Red and Black expat had to make good on the bet. Fulmer's Belly wonders whether the Neyland mystique is back.
So Vol fans tabled the task of identifying candidates to replace coach Fulmer in favor of a discussion of whether the Vols could run the table. We were now ahead of our two biggest rivals in the SEC East. Yes, we still had to play Steve Spurrier, Kentucky and Vanderbilt, and beating all of them would not be easy. And yes, if we lost any other SEC game, even to Mississippi State, Alabama, or Arkansas from the West, we’d lose our tiebreaker over Florida. Yes, the steering wheel was a bit slippery. But it felt good to be back in the driver's seat.
Elsewhere this week:
The Stanford Tree took out No. 2 Southern Cal in a drunken stupor.