The pachyderm is off the back

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What we saw Saturday evening was a 15-year, cigar-smoke-laden sigh of relief.

Tennessee 52, Alabama 49.

Wow. What a ballgame. Irrespective of the result, that was some contest. I’d have said that no matter who won. The game in Knoxville had everything: drama, momentum shifts, cataclysmic errors, heroic playmaking and, in the end, more drama.

Chase McGrath’s knuckleball field goal from 40 yards ended it and the crimson primate was off the Big Orange backs.

Maybe you love Alabama and hate Tennessee…and vice versa…but you have to admit that college football is better when these two ancient SEC rivals are relevant. And Saturday, Tennessee proved its relevancy.

I was reluctant to say it before, primarily because of Battered Vol Syndrome. We’d seen this movie before. Tennessee teases us into thinking it’s a player on the national stage, only to falter because of poor coaching decisions, lack of player development or any number of issues that have plagued this program.

What we are seeing now is a perfect chain of command between UT president Randy Boyd, chancellor Donde Plowman, AD Danny White and head coach Josh Heupel. Each is responsible for policing his or her area and it’s working across the board. It seems all sports are doing well at UT, applications for admission are up 63 percent and there is a glut of season-ticket requests, so many that Tennessee has to put fans on a waiting list.

I wonder if the UTAD is rethinking the moronic idea of shrinking the seating capacity over the last 15 years or so.

Things are good on The Hill. They could get better.

Tennessee, who, 20 months ago, was at its lowest point perhaps in program history. To say it reached its nadir is an egregious understatement. Given what this program had been through since Phil Fulmer guided UT to its first losing season in 17 years back in 2005, then the subsequent disappointments leading to his dismissal, and the awful Lane Kiffin decision, Tennessee football has been swimming upstream in a torrent.

Had I told you, 20 months ago, when Tennessee handed Jeremy Pruitt, Fulmer, the assistant coaches and analysts their exit visas, that the Vols would be national contenders in under two years, you’d have thought the harvest in Columbia was potent.

But here we are. Again, I was reluctant to make this pronouncement, but it seems that the Big Orange, is, at long last, back.

The Vols have taken a rag-tag team and turned it into a winner. Let’s be honest, Alabama has a lot more talent than Tennessee. Bryce Young is the reigning Heisman Trophy winner. He threw for 455 yards and his team posted 49 points. 

That wasn’t good enough to win in Knoxville Saturday.

That makes a statement to me.

It just seems right now that Tennessee wants it more. This team has crystalized, it believes in itself and its coaches and feels it can fight its way out of any situation. Look at Saturday. Tennessee surrendered an 18-point lead, suffered a scoop-and-score late in the game for a 49-42 deficit, and still figured out how to win the game. The Vols took Alabama’s best shots and managed to get off the canvas every time.

People bemoan the defense, but guess what? Tennessee is 6-0 with this defense, including victories over four nationally-ranked teams. The defense is doing just enough to keep this team buoyant. For example, Tennessee stopped Alabama’s first drive, then limited the Tide to a pair of field goals. If Bama coach Nick Saban had converted just one of those fourth-down plays, instead of kicking it, and the drive ended in a touchdown, the dynamics of those last 15 seconds would have changed significantly.

Tennessee, aided by Bama penalties, forced a 50-yard field goal, which missed. With 15 seconds left, on the wrong side of the field, Tennessee, in two plays, got in field goal range. We’ve seen this kind of thing throughout the Heupel era. 

Last week, we could talk about the Vols being a national contender in an abstract sense. This week, I think it’s safe to say Tennessee is a player on the national stage.

That’s pretty remarkable, considering what a nuclear accident this program was 20 months ago.

Jim Steele is a correspondent for Magic Valley Publishing and the host of The Pressbox radio show, which airs 4-6 p.m. Monday-Thursday on WRJB, 95.9 FM, Camden, Tenn.

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