The phrase "turning point" is already being used and will be used all week following Tennessee's 38-31 win over the No. 19 Georgia Bulldogs. Many are already predicting the Vols' victory over the Bulldogs as the pivotal point of Tennessee's season, one that will bring the Vols together as a team and allow them to finally reach their potential.
The reason for optimism isn't so much the win itself but how the Vols did it and who they did it against. Tennessee's victory over Georgia ended a five-game losing streak to the Bulldogs, the longest losing streak the Vols have suffered in the series. It was the Vols' first win over a ranked opponent since they defeated a top-10 South Carolina squad in 2013, and it was Tennessee's first victory over an SEC team not named Kentucky, South Carolina, or Vanderbilt since 2010 against Ole Miss. But most importantly, the win came after collapses to Oklahoma, Florida, and Arkansas for the Vols, and it may just be a sign to fans that the Vols have learned from their past mistakes.
In Tennessee's three losses to start the season, the Vols had two-score leads and proceeded to have a meltdown in all three, giving away the lead in the fourth quarter against Oklahoma and Florida and losing it right before halftime to Arkansas. But unlike those other three games, the Vols spotted Georgia a multiple-score lead, falling behind 24-3 before mounting a comeback to take a 31-24 lead in the third quarter.
Most Vol fans and media alike agree that Tennessee's current coaching staff actually tends to call a good game when trailing. The Vols look more loose and tenacious when playing from behind, and that was obvious on Saturday once again. But Tennessee carried a lead going into the fourth quarter once again, and it was time for Butch Jones and his staff to show fans that they could alter their approach from this season's other games.
Then Georgia connected on a 48-yard touchdown pass on the first play of the fourth quarter, all but reaffirming Vol fans' fears of playing ahead in the fourth quarter.
But then something happened, something that hadn't happened in Tennessee's other three big games of the season: The Vols let their best players make plays. Quarterback Joshua Dobbs and running back Jalen Hurd were given a multitude of touches and had plays drawn up to fit their talents, and unlike in Tennessee's losses, the Vols' best players were given opportunities early and late in the game. Dobbs was responsible for all five of Tennessee's touchdowns, and he turned in quite possibly the best performance of his career thus far, totaling a career-high 312 passing yards and adding another 118 on the ground, earning Player of the Week honors from the Walter Camp Football Foundation.
Not only did Tennessee players execute better (for the most part) late in the game, but coaches actually showed an ability to make solid decisions and make good play-calls. The Vols had been using screens all game, but faking a screen with a pump fake and hitting a wide-open receiver down the seam was an example of the staff finally breaking out of their conservative box. Another example came on Tennessee's second touchdown of the game right before halftime. The offense lined up at the 2 yard-line in an empty shotgun set, something Vol fans have complained about multiple times with this offense. But instead of calling up a predictable, easily-defended play, the play called for Alvin Kamara to roll out in the flat just inside in the end zone, and Dobbs found him wide open for the score.
All night, the offense went away from its usual sideline-happy and mid-range pass plays and actually attempted several passes down the middle and somewhat deep. Dobbs attempted a 50/50 ball deep down the sideline to Jauan Jennings and was rewarded with a pass interference call on Georgia, and Josh Malone, Josh Smith, and Ethan Wolf were all found down the middle of the field at various times of the game. The Vols even called an option run play inside the five yard-line instead of their typical read-option run game.
The Vols will have to prove in two weeks when they take on Alabama that what they did against Georgia was no fluke, no one-time aberration for the season. The coaching staff will have to show that their play-calling and willingness to open up the offense wasn't a one-game thing but something that will carry over the rest of the season. Because right now, the Georgia game is the only time this team and staff have lived up to their potential this season. The win over the Bulldogs will mean little if the staff reverts back to their old ways and squanders the momentum gained from this victory.
But the Georgia win has given Vol fans hope that the staff and players can learn from their mistakes and hope that the second half of the season can be much more successful than the first. The SEC East may be out of reach, but becoming relevant nationally is still a goal that can be accomplished.
The Vols proved Saturday they have what it takes to finally win a big game and salvage their season. Now they just have to take what they've learned and apply it.