Well that was wild. For the first time in possibly ever, Tennessee completed a Hail Mary as time ran out in the fourth quarter to beat Georgia 34-31 in Athens. With the win, the Vols accomplished the most important task for the week, moving to 5-0 and taking a commanding lead in the SEC East. But there was a lot to improve from a performance that saw Tennessee dig yet another double-digit hole before storming back and securing the win. So what got better, and what got worse? On to this week's trends:
- Just keep winning. The Vols are 5-0, have beaten a ranked team on the road for the first time since 2006, and have beaten ranked teams in consecutive weeks for the first time since 1995. There are no pictures on the scoreboard. Or, apropos to this situation, there's only one picture that anyone is going to remember.
- Goals. Going into the season, Tennessee's primary goal was winning the SEC East. That's far from wrapped up with six games to play, but with a one-game lead and the tiebreaker over their closest competition, it's looking good. Now the Vols can turn their attention to being in the playoff conversation. And to do that, they will need at least six wins in their last seven games, including at least one over a top ten opponent. The road only gets tougher.
- Heroics. Tennessee's last two touchdowns came via strip-sack in the end zone and a Hail Mary as time expired, one by Tennessee's best defensive player and another by a player who is quickly becoming the Vols' most explosive receiver. Tennessee needed their best players to come up big in crunch time, and they did.
- Digging out of a hole. In the last two years (as of whatever time Saturday night this stat got dug up), FBS teams trailing by 14+ points are just 77-698. Four of those wins are by Tennessee. None of the losses are by Tennessee. Coming back from down 17-0 was just the second-biggest comeback of the season for the Vols, and Tennessee has now erased four double-digit deficits on the year and three double-digit second half deficits. This was the closest Tennessee has come to letting a slow start cost them the victory, but they still pulled it out. However, like fumble recoveries (see below), Tennessee would be wise to stop counting on this trend to continue.
- Taking advantage of your opponent's mistakes. A 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and five more for offside allowed Tennessee a final shot at the end zone from within Dobbs' range, and the Vols took full advantage.
- Remembering the long-snapper's name. Riley Lovingood's over-the-shoulder catch at the six-yard line pinned Georgia against their own goal line and set up the defensive touchdown that gave the Vols their first lead of the game. Add in an Evan Berry kickoff return that set up the game-winning touchdown, and it was a nice fourth quarter for Tennessee's special teams unit.
- Relying on the defense to salt it away. In case you've forgotten since last season, there had been nine games during Butch Jones' tenure where the Tennessee defense was on the field late in the fourth quarter trying to protect a one-score lead. In those nine games, Tennessee allowed their opponent to drive inside the UT 30 an appalling eight(!) times and allowed five touchdowns. Despite late leads in every one, the Vols went just 4-5 in those nine games, one of the reasons that it made sense to change defensive coordinators after last season. After Saturday, we can make it ten. The shiny new coordinator failed his first late-game test, and Tennessee has now allowed touchdowns in six of their ten attempts to protect a late lead since 2013. And don't think for a second that the focus on the defense's shortcomings excuses Butch Jones and offensive coordinator Mike DeBord. The Vols' offensive staff had the ball with just over a minute to go, needing only a first down to salt the game away. They decided that burning a UGA timeout was more important than trying for a first down. We've been down this road before, and it isn't good.
- Run defense. Excluding sacks, Georgia ran for 202 yards on 43 carries, an average of 4.7 yards per carry, helping the Dawgs to a pair of 10-play touchdown drives that made up the bulk of Georgia's 17-0 first half lead. This is the same Georgia squad whose backs averaged 3.3 yards per carry against Missouri and 4.4 yards per carry against FCS Nicholls State. If Tennessee's run defense doesn't shape up in a hurry, they'll be in for a long two weeks against Texas A&M and Alabama.
- Encouraging comparisons. After the Vols took care of Virginia Tech, it was nice to watch the Hokies demolish Boston College and East Carolina. But, for as fun as the Florida game was, giving up 28 points to the Gators the week before Florida managed just 13 against Vanderbilt is quite a bit less exciting. And needing late-game heroics to beat a team that dug themselves into a 45-0 hole against Ole Miss the week before doesn't make the Vols look good when compared to the cream of the SEC crop.
- Fumble recoveries. After recovering 11 straight of their own fumbles and more than half of their opponents' over the first four games, the tables turned on Tennessee early in the Georgia game. Tennessee did end up recovering two fumbles in Athens, but the first four balls on the ground--including two in the end zone--went Georgia's way. That helped the Dawgs establish a 17-0 lead and reinforced the timeless truth that an offense that takes care of the football in the first place is better than one that's good at recovering balls on the ground.