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The First Inch

Where Derek Dooley failed over the course of three years, Butch Jones succeeded in seven weeks.

Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

One of the small consolations I allowed myself over these last few seasons was thinking about writing this story.  It's why you keep coming to Neyland Stadium and keep investing in this football program no matter who's in charge:  you want to be there when the good moments happen again.  And not just after the fact, not just the Saturdays when Tennessee is competing for championships again.  You want to be there the first time the narrative begins to change.

Today wasn't the last inch.  There are thousands more to go.  The rebuilt foundation of Tennessee Football will come more on the shoulders of current players and incoming recruits than a single win over South Carolina.

But especially when dealing with the foundation, you need the right builder, the right architect.  We know better than most how even the proudest old house can be shaken and potentially compromised with the wrong men at the controls.

So on a day with dozens of pictures speaking millions of words, this one might be my favorite:

Two weeks ago Tennessee huffed and puffed and almost, almost, almost blew the house down.  It wasn't so much about Georgia's house as it was Tennessee's.  The Vols were playing the Dawgs, but also playing the past five years.  It's like playing against a ghost.  It makes us nervous.

Truth be told, Tennessee played a better game last week.  But sometimes a better performance still loses in those inches against another good performance from the other sideline, as Pig Howard found out at the goal line.

But then sometimes, your stud freshman wide receiver makes an impossible one-handed catch in the final moments.

Tennessee didn't blow the house down today so much as sneak in through the side door.  But either way, you'd better believe those ghosts were getting exorcised.

And it's about time.

After the initial seconds of euphoria and instinctual reaction when Michael Palardy's kick was true, I found myself standing there next to my wife in Z11 with my arms stretched as wide as possible, so thankful and trying to take every inch of it in.  There was the team chasing down Palardy, finally catching him near the opposite end zone.  We signed Palardy as the number one kicker in the nation four years ago, and this season under this head coach he has become every bit the weapon we hoped he would be.  There was Butch Jones, staying on his knee for just a moment in the initial euphoria, then leading our band and our team in the greatest song in all of college football.  Don't discount this moment either; it's been a tough week for the 18-22 year olds in The Pride of the Southland, but they were excellent today and it was great to see everyone share that moment at the end together.

One of my favorite parts came from the other end of the field, as Tennessee's assistant coaches who were in the press box came sprinting - and I mean sprinting - onto the field a few minutes later to join the celebration.  The offense and special teams get the glory in those final moments, but what about John Jancek's defense today?  How about Willie Martinez and his defensive backs, helping Connor Shaw enter the game at 68.5% completion percentage and 9.2 yards per attempt, and leave today at just 7 of 21 with his first interception of the year (and hopefully not a serious knee injury)?  How about Steve Stripling's defensive line getting pressure on the quarterback with just the front four?  The last time Tennessee had four sacks in an SEC game that wasn't against Kentucky, Phillip Fulmer was still the head coach.

When everyone gives their inch, this team can compete with almost anyone, and we can strike the almost next week if we so desire.  Butch Jones has made this a team in ways Derek Dooley I think truly could not have comprehended.  And that's a big point too:  today we'll talk about Dooley some because this was the biggest thing he could never do, but today was also the inch that allows us to leave the past behind and truly move forward.  Today Tennessee severed ties with words like "cursed".  How high Butch Jones will ultimately build this thing we'll spend years finding out.  But make no mistake:  today feels like freedom.

In some ways the inches will get no easier.  Nevermind #1 Alabama, wins today by Missouri and Auburn should ensure the Vols will face ranked foes in five consecutive games and seven of eight.  But this team has spent the last two Saturdays in Neyland Stadium learning how to win, and now actually, finally, joyfully winning.  We're not going away.

But in some ways today was the hardest inch.  The one that could've slipped away when we punted on 4th and 4.  The one we could've wasted along with all that great field position in the first half.  The one that could've been added to the long list of heartbreak from the last five years.

But now that list is over.  Butch Jones has already been rebuilding the house Neyland, Dickey, Majors, Fulmer and so many others built.  The foundation was already in the works.  But as work continues on the 117th floor, today - by a glorious inch - we can let the past be the past, and put our full faith in Butch Jones.

Thanks for today, Tennessee.

Beat Bama.