The Tennessee Volunteers second SEC win of the season was also their second win of the year against a top-25 team. Tennessee played well from start to finish in beating 12th ranked Kentucky 24-7 on Saturday and they played even better than when they upset Auburn several weeks before. How did the Vols do it you ask? They played with passion; something that's been missing in Knoxville for several years now.
I know some Tennessee fans are saying, "It was Kentucky. That's a team we've owned for decades." That may be true, but this Kentucky team is nationally ranked and stands 7-3 even after the loss to the Volunteers. I was in Knoxville on Saturday, sitting in the Vol Network booth which is right next to the Tennessee coaches booth.
From the start of the game the Volunteer's assistant coaches were focused and so were the players. When a less talented team plays with focus and passion they can do wonderful things.
It was a total team effort, this playing with passion thing. It was reminiscent of the way the Vols played many times under Johnny Majors and Phillip Fulmer. The second half of the "Miracle at South Bend " game and the 1986 Sugar Bowl win over Miami were great examples of playing with passion under Coach Majors. Coach Fulmer had his share of playing with passion contests, including the 1995 win at Alabama and the upset win at Miami in 2003. Playing with great passion is something that carries over to the fans as well. On Saturday, the Big Orange faithful had a little more pep in their step and they really seemed to be excited to be there. I picked the Volunteers to win over Kentucky even after their listless 14-3 win over Charlotte the week before.
The win over the Wildcats moved Tennessee closer to bowl eligibility as they need just one more win in their final two games of the year against Missouri and Vanderbilt. By beating Kentucky it made playing in a bowl game much more realistic. As I overheard a Vol fan say on Saturday," We can beat Vanderbilt. Heck we may even beat Missouri and finish 7-5 ."
If that fan is indeed correct, then the Vols would also finish 4-4 in SEC play which is a tremendous improvement over the 0-8 league mark the team finished with last season. That 0-8 record in 2017 was the worst SEC finish ever in school history. It fit right in with that 4-8 overall record; the one that led to the firing of Coach Butch Jones one year ago. What does all this mean? It means that Coach Jeremy Pruitt's team is better, much better than they were a year ago. It means that Tennessee's bowl stock just went up big-time. It means that the Volunteers are on their way back, not all the way certainly but most definitely on the way Most importantly it means that Tennessee is once again playing with passion, and that my friends goes a long, long way.
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Randy Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org