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Tennessee 31 South Carolina 13 - Restoring Order to the SEC East

It's 185 miles from my front door to Neyland Stadium, which means I don't make it in for all of them anymore.  Night games are particularly problematic, because for me it means an immediate turnaround afterwards and an arrival back home somewhere between 3:00-4:00 AM (thank you, daylight savings), and the alarm clock will be waiting at 7:00. 

I never worry about falling asleep on the drive - I'm either too excited with winning or too frustrated with losing, and mentally engaged either way.  But there had been too many night games recently like Auburn - or worse, Alabama last year - that left the orange car flags in the postgame caravan at half-mast. 

But driving back last night, I remembered how much fun the little things are when you win.  Like stopping for coffee at some obscure gas station well after midnight and more than a hundred miles from Knoxville, only to find four other people at the same gas station wearing the same shade of orange you are.  And making eye contact with them coming in and out of the door, and sharing a smile instead of glances of equal frustration.  Or getting honked at by someone who also has Tennessee paraphernalia on their car even though you're both in a different state.

You also enjoy the little things in the stadium more when you're up 21-3 at halftime, like The Pride of the Southland's inspired Halloween performance that showed that while numbers may be down, be not afraid:  there will still be Thriller on Halloween  (complete with what may be the first-ever Pride dance number, and Bill Williams' unexpected ability to scare children of all ages).

But the greatest little thing/staple crop of Tennessee football is an eighteen point victory over a Top 25 SEC rival that leaves you still asking questions about ways we could've played better. 

In search of perspective while enjoying the win...

The Jonathan Crompton we would've happily settled for a month ago

I think this was the type of performance from Crompton (and the offense) we thought we'd get back in August, and we prayed for in September:  a run-heavy attack (40 rushing plays to 24 passing), a completion percentage at or above even (12 of 24), keeping it simple and safe (only 142 yards passing, half of the 12 receptions going to backs & tight ends, including the ultra-rare double fullback touchdown pass), and no mistakes (zero interceptions).  In fact, on that last point, when our quarterback did what he still likes to do by trying to turn it over around once a week, Crompton beat everyone else to his own fumble.

Keep in mind, South Carolina entered the game with the nation's third best pass defense, and both Kiffin and Crompton played it smart, taking few risks with the short fields they were given, while still finding ways to finish drives. 

Crompton's average performance - and again, we would've killed to use the word "average" to describe him just four weeks ago - makes what he did against Alabama look even more impressive, and his numbers against Georgia belong in their own separate category.  It may not get easier specifically for Crompton - Ole Miss, Vanderbilt and Kentucky all wield Top 25 pass defenses - but after three straight weeks of playing anywhere between average and Manningesque, and doing so twice against elite pass defenses, I think Crompton can continue to play somewhere between the two from here on out.

Things Montario Hardesty has a chance to do this season:

  • The UT single-season rushing record.  Hardesty has 841 yards in 8 games, around 105 yards per game.  Unlike Crompton, things should get easier for Hardesty:  none of the Vols' next four opponents are in the top half (Top 60) of the NCAA in rushing defense.  The current single-season record belongs to Travis Stephens from 2001, 1,464 yards.  If Hardesty ups his average to 124 yards per game, including a bowl game, he'll get the record.
  • The Top 10 of the UT career rushing chart.  Hardesty is currently a yard away from the Top 15 with 1,887 yards.  Realistically, Hardesty could go as high as 8th, where Curt Watson currently sits with 2,364 yards.  From there, there's a significant jump to Jay Graham at 7th (2,609).  But if he keeps playing this well, it would be great to see his name farther up in the pantheon.
  • First-team All-SEC.  One spot currently has Mark Ingram's name written all over it, but the other is a triple-threat match between Hardesty, Ben Tate and Anthony Dixon.  All four are currently in the Top 25 nationally in rushing yards.  The last Vol to win first-team All-SEC honors at RB was, again, Travis Stephens in 2001.
  • More highlight-reel runs like the one last night.  Hardesty has the most effective spin move of any Tennessee back I've ever seen.

Tennessee's Defense is a Beautiful Thing

Yes, South Carolina got 300 yards passing, but Stephen Garcia threw 50 passes to get there and completed only 25 of them.  Meanwhile, the Vols stonewalled Carolina's ground game, giving up only 65 yards.  And while a great catch by Moe Brown broke the Vol defense's 10 quarter streak of keeping teams out of the end zone, their continual bend-but-absolutely-no-breaking play gives Tennessee the advantage against everyone left on the schedule.

And when faced with an unexpected and even more difficult situation when LaMarcus Thompson and Savion Frazier both went down within minutes of each other?  Freshman Greg King steps right in and scores an interception.  The Vols are equal parts talented and well-coached on the defensive end, and it shows even when we're down to our third string middle linebacker.

Will Hudgens + Jevan Snead + Mackenzi Adams + Morgan Newton =

Eric Berry's getting that record.  Soon.

Have you ever seen one team have three consecutive field goals blocked against them?

Seriously, has this ever happened in college or the NFL?  As good as we are on defense, we're that bad on special teams.  Hopefully, it's already cost us the only game it's going to.

Bringing Order from Chaos in the SEC East

For the present, the Vols should now finish the season as the clear-cut second best team in the SEC East, having disposed of the other candidates - no offense to our November opponents - by a combined 44 points.  That'll help with bowl seeding, as I continue to see no way the Vols miss out on January 1 if they win out.

And what's more...back in September, we said the Vols needed to split the month of October.  In four SEC games, a 2-2 record looked like success.  And here on the first day of November, it's still true - no matter how much we would've liked to have had that kick go through against Alabama, Tennessee did what they needed to do this month.  The 4-4 Vols are playing their best football right now, and will have every shot to finish 8-4.

But in terms of recruiting and the future...if you were going to win two games this month, the Vols won the two most important ones.

When the Vols were at their best from 93-99, Tennessee went 14-0 against Georgia and South Carolina.  Florida is always going to be good, and Alabama should be too and will be as long as Nick Saban is there.  LSU has the in-state talent base to join the conversation...but we only see them every four years.  The fewer good teams there are outside those three, the better.  The Vols need to become the fourth, and then lock the doors behind them. 

Lane Kiffin can't establish dominance over anyone in his first year, and it'll take several seasons before Tennessee can even begin to think of themselves more highly than Georgia and Carolina.  However, the Vols have history on their side:  Tennessee has ripped Georgia apart in three of the last four meetings, and Tennessee is now 22-4-2 all-time against the Gamecocks.  Despite the outcome last night, the talent differential between Tennessee and Carolina isn't that wide:  the Gamecocks actually outgained Tennessee, and if they just held on to the ball in the first half, that's a tight ballgame to the finish.  They are the two youngest teams in the SEC and will compete in a wide open SEC East next season.  Georgia, meanwhile...well, they're not in a good place right now.

But the point is, if Tennessee can keep their boot on the throats of Georgia and Carolina and re-establish a definitive advantage on them both as a program, the recruiting battles become easier to win in states the Vols once pulled from, making it easier for the Vols to be back on par with the Floridas and Alabamas of the world from a talent standpoint.  We're a long way away from that right now...but Saturday might have been the first step.

And finally...   

I'm a traditionalist.  I was a history major, I love talking about the great Vol teams of the Fulmer or Majors eras, and I think our orange uniforms are great, and borderline sacred.  I don't like it when teams change their unis on a whim (or Nike's whim), and I think there's a reason the winningest teams in college football history - Alabama, USC, Penn State, etc. - don't mess around with their uniforms.

I wasn't prepared for the black.  I never thought we'd actually do it - I thought we might work it in more on the road at some point, but never a sudden replacement of the sacred orange at home.  During pregame warmups, I was texting my dad and others who come from the same line of thinking to assure them that all was well.

When the Vols came to the edge of the tunnel, and suddenly the JumboTron showed the black unis, at first I was stunned.  And I still think that had I been sitting at home watching that game on TV, I would've hated them.

But to have been there, and to have heard and felt the reaction of that crowd, and then to have seen the way this team came out and played off of that emotion - in a week where we were all worried about an emotional letdown - I think everyone in the stadium Saturday night liked those uniforms within ten minutes of first laying eyes on them.  Including me.

Do I want to see them every week?  No.  But now that the ice is know what would look even better?

Black pants.