With Butch Jones and Mark Richt on opposite sidelines, we are three-for-three on randomly entertaining, hold on to whatever you can find football games. In this case whatever you can find was the full spectrum of emotions, both for this game and, I'm sure for many of us, our opinion of the program. There's some distance between where we were down 24-3 and facing a pair of fourth downs late in the first half and the way you feel right now.
There's not much distance in the level of competitiveness: in regulation against Oklahoma, Florida, Arkansas, and Georgia the Vols are now +2 in point differential. But getting a different result on the scoreboard will put some appropriate distance in a number of conversations, and more importantly, bring Tennessee together in so many ways.
Two of the biggest questions surrounding the Vols coming into this game dealt with Tennessee's ability to make adjustments and be aggressive in the second half, and the overall mental state of this team. And today, the Vols answered both of those questions in extraordinary ways.
Almost none of us, including me first and foremost, gave Tennessee enough credit for the type of mental toughness it takes to come back from down 24-3 against a ranked rival after having blown three consecutive two possession leads against FBS foes. This starts with Butch Jones at the top and bleeds all the way through to the players. When Georgia struck first on Jalen Hurd's shades of 2003 fumble, I wondered if Tennessee might simply take it in stride because, in a perverse sort of way, we've seen worse in the gut punch department. That seemed like a moot point at 24-3, but perhaps there is some truth in it. Maybe this team, at this point, has dealt with so much adversity there's a bit of, "...okay, what else you got?" for moments like the fumble. Either way, Tennessee had the mental toughness to not only keep playing but start playing well.
This was a long game with a thousand things to break down over the course of 152 offensive plays. But Tennessee had 90 of those snaps. And with the game on the line, instead of easing off the gas and playing it safe, Mike DeBord and Josh Dobbs showed plenty of growth.
Dobbs had already been great running the ball in the second half in Gainesville this year. He was great in that capacity again today, 118 yards and a pair of touchdowns on 18 carries. But this time Dobbs was also great through the air, especially in the game's most important moments. In hindsight the game's biggest play is the fourth down touchdown to Josh Smith in the second quarter, a play that opened the door for everything that followed. And after doing all the comeback work, seeing Georgia answer to tie the game at 31, and maybe some of the ghosts of September still lurking? DeBord and Dobbs were at their best on the game winning drive.
First, on 2nd and 10, Dobbs pump faked on a screen and went downfield for 34 yards to Ethan Wolf. The Vols had set that play up all day, and DeBord picked the perfect time to cash in on the investment. Two plays later on 2nd and 8, Dobbs read off a pass to Hurd in the flat and dropped one downfield for Preston Williams. He dropped it. No worries, we'll come right back on the very next play and go, you guessed it, downfield for Alex Ellis and another first down. The intermediate passing game that had seemingly disappeared form Tennessee's playbook was its most valuable weapon on the game's most valuable drive.
In this, the Vols could be the team that throws for 300 and runs for 200. Dobbs could be the quarterback that puts a 300/100 spot on a good defense. Tennessee's offense was effective because it was balanced.
And it was effective even when two offensive linemen went down at the end of a week when two other offensive linemen were banged up and questionable. In any of the last seven years we're not deep enough or good enough to survive that against Georgia. Today, two true freshmen come in and the offense keeps right on going. Tennessee does not win today without Jack Jones and Chance Hall.
The Vols also coached appropriately conservative in the final two minutes. Butch Jones' decision to punt on 4th and 1 with 1:58 to play was rewarded with a ball that went out of bounds at the one yard line. From there, Tennessee's defensive cushion kept everything in front of them, making the Dawgs burn through the clock without getting any closer than the 22 yard line.
It took 60 minutes, 152 plays, and a few more years off our lives. But the Vols got the result that makes these lives great as Tennessee fans. And it took everybody: run game, pass game, special teams, and a defense that finally made its stop on the last drive. It took the first team stars we knew, and a number of would've-been second team guys, some of them true freshmen. And it happened not against South Carolina, Bowling Green, NC State or Cincinnati, but the Georgia Bulldogs.
It also took 102,455 on a raucous Knoxville night. It's this number that means far more than anything that can be said by anyone in 140 characters in taking the pulse of the fan base.
On Vol Network post-game, when thanking the fans, Butch Jones said something to the effect of, "We've been through a lot together these past few weeks." Today wasn't the first and won't be the last word on Butch Jones, Mike DeBord, Josh Dobbs, or anyone else. It will stand as the current, most powerful word in a conversation that desperately needed it. But with the university having already made a long-term commitment to its head coach, Tennessee and its fans needed this win to serve as a reminder that the most important word in that sentence is, "together." We have hurt together plenty this year. Tonight, we celebrate together. And in showing mental toughness and getting down the field to win at the end of the game today, hope will grow once again that we are going somewhere good. Together.