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Tennessee 32 UAB 29 (2OT) - Sober Up

It's advice for myself as much as anyone else.

We knew to win some games this year, the Vols would have to be lucky.  We knew we'd need to be on the right side in turnovers, special teams, and have our defense bend but not break.  And overall, we expected the Vols to struggle.

But not today.  Not against this opponent.  This wasn't Oregon or Florida.  It wasn't even Kentucky or Ole Miss.  This was UAB, owner of the worst pass defense in college football in 2009, and without any remarkable offensive talent with QB Joe Webb's graduation.

It started the way we thought it would:  a quick TD drive from the Vols, and when UAB answered with a great catch on a flea-flicker, the Vols responded immediately with a one-play strike to Zach Rogers.  Even when things weren't going all that well in the second quarter, a 17-7 lead became 23-7 when Prentiss Waggner scored his second pick six of the year in the final moments of the half.  UAB's statistical advantage at halftime was a random aside.

Then in the second half, the Vol offense did absolutely nothing, while the Vol defense played even worse.  UAB didn't get lucky - they dominiated.  544 total yards to the Vols' 287, and 9-for-23 on third down (plus 2-for-2 on fourth down) while the Vols went 2-for-15.  They didn't get lucky - we did.

By the time the dust settled, the Vols needed five - FIVE - missed field goals to even get to overtime.  Once there, the defense found enough left to make two stops, and the offense found enough left to make one play...and the Vols live, 32-29.

Any Kool-Aid that was left in the orange solo cup was spilled on the floor in disbelief today.  And while it's exponentially less painful to see in victory than in defeat, today was a stunning and very real picture of where Tennessee Football is right now.

If a fanbase takes on the nature of its head coach, today is a very good day for all of us to embrace The Process.  In The Quest for Six Wins (which is what they'd call the DVD of this season if they made one for six win teams), the Vols are now a third of the way there.  Logic and Vegas will agree that we should get no closer in the month of October.

The team we saw today is going to take a beating in the next four games.  It's true in a literal sense more than anywhere else:  the Vols are painfully thin, down several starters due to injury, and can't keep their defense off the field - today UAB won time of possession by more than 12 minutes.  Lining up against LSU, Georgia, Alabama, and South Carolina four out of the next five Saturdays is going to tax this team in ways we can't even fully understand right now.

However...the Vols can go 0-for-October, and The Quest for Six Wins would still be alive.  Despite what we saw today, if this Tennessee team can both survive and reasonably improve, I believe it's still good enough to beat Memphis, Ole Miss in Knoxville, Vanderbilt and Kentucky.  It will probably get worse before it gets better - and it was plenty bad today - but what's most important now is the process.  Even if the Vols aren't winning, are they getting better?

And here's the thing too - there are some places where it's reasonable to expect the Vols to be better, and some places where we're just flat young.  The offensive line gave up six sacks to the Gators, then followed up with five sacks today.  Five brand new starters in August have given way to two additional players with injuries, and you know what?  It shows.  If you take away the sack yardage, the Vols ran 19 times for 68 yards today (3.57 per).  If the line can stay relatively healthy, they will get better every week.  But right now, it's just who we are.

Matt Simms had his best statistical day:  19 of 34, 245 yards, 3 TDs, 0 INTs.  And yet, Derek Dooley admitted in the postgame press conference that he thought about putting in Tyler Bray in the second half.  Dooley knows somewhere between ten and a billion times more about football than I do...but doesn't that seem like a terrible idea?  None of Tennessee's biggest problems today had to do with Simms' play...and Dooley said as much.  Putting Tyler Bray's 18 year old frame behind this offensive line is a risk any time, but on this day it would've been change simply for the sake of change.  Is that really what this team needs, at all? 

Bray probably has the higher ceiling, no doubt, and he may even be the quarterback in 2011...but right now, I think Simms goes well with where this offense is.  He's smart, he's careful aside from two (very costly) throws so far this year, and he stays calm under pressure.  His pocket presence is also helpful, because it's collapsing often.  If we want to make a move to Bray this year, it should be no sooner than the Memphis November.

The quarterback is who he is, and he's playing behind a line that's doing the best it can.  As a result?  Our offense, she struggles.  That's how it is, and how we thought it would be.

The defense?  Different story.

Tell me a worse defensive performance you've seen from Tennessee than the one you saw today.

This had the yardage of the 2007 Florida game, without Tim Tebow.  It had the mid-major frustration of the 2006 Air Force game, only UAB doesn't run an offense that the Vols never see.  There was nothing new or spectacular about what UAB did...they simply blocked whatever pass rush the Vols sent, and ran crossing routes against the Vols' coverage to death.  It's been true since the Oregon game:  when the other team faces 2nd and 15, it's a minor inconvenience.  When the Vols face 2nd and 15, warm up the punter.

Even the absence of Art Evans and Herman Lathers only goes so far.  This defense gave up 447 yards to Oregon and 317 to Florida, but UAB gets 544?  Those three have combined for a staggering 22 third down conversions - 22 opportunities for the defense to get off the field, all for naught.

I don't expect much more from the offense.  I do expect the defense to play better, especially on third down.  We should expect more from Justin Wilcox, and from these guys - you can't blame the play of the defense on depth alone.  If the Vols don't find some way to make a quarterback think he's in something other than a 7-on-7 non-contact drill, it's going to be an even longer year than we first imagined.

The offense is what it is.  The defense has to improve.  And the saving grace is, of course, the guy we thought we could count on the least at the start of the year:  Daniel Lincoln is now 7-for-7, including kicks of 47, 48, and 49 yards, and nailed the one in the first overtime to help extend the game.

Tennessee may not win a game in October, and expecting otherwise may not be realistic.  But this team can still improve...if Dooley can keep them together.  I still believe that if the Vols avoid serious injuries, this team has what it takes to play its best football as the year goes on.  The offensive line will get better, and Matt Simms may as well.  The defense absolutely has to.  But right now, we're lucky to have beaten a Conference USA foe who dominated us on both sides of the ball.

Was today a sobering experience for the players as well?  The celebration after the win was an interesting snapshot of this program:  an instant double-overtime victory certainly deserves some measure of celebration, and there haven't been a ton of things to celebrate round these parts lately anyway.

But some comments in the past week from Matt Simms and Janzen Jackson suggested the players had an unearned level of confidence, and that may have translated into a lack of focus today.  If the Vols lack focus in Baton Rouge, we're going to get killed.

Derek Dooley has to manage his team's emotions and their progress.  The challenge in the month of October is steep every week.  Winning any one of these games would be huge, though based on what we saw today there's no reason to anticipate it.  But if the Vols can stay together, keep growing, and keep fighting, I still believe the process will pay off.  Today may have been the best picture we've seen yet of exactly where Tennessee Football is right now.  But even if the old Kool-Aid's gone bad, if we start drinking from The Process, we may still find some good left in this season.

How much good will we find in October?  We're about to find out.