Randy Smith: Vols Inching Closer To SEC Relevance

Monday, October 25, 2021 - by Randy Smith
The Tennessee football program hasn't been really relevant in the SEC for more than a decade. In fact, it's been 14 years since the Volunteers last played in an SEC Championship Game. But under first year head coach Josh Heupel, Tennessee is making great strides in returning to its rightful place, and if the first three quarters of Saturday's match up at mighty Alabama is any indication, the Vols may be a lot closer than one would think.

Tennessee stood toe to toe with the Crimson Tide early on, actually leading 14-7 midway through the second quarter. However, games are four quarters long and after taking a 21-14 lead at the half, 'Bama flexed its muscles and pulled away for a 52-24 win, the Tide's 15th win in a row over the Volunteers.
Tennessee should have never been in the game at all. There are no Heisman candidates on Tennessee's side of the field and the Vols had less than 65 scholarship players available due to the mass exodus of decent players through the NCAA transfer portal. In fact one of those transfers, linebacker Henry To'oto'o now plays for Alabama.

'So what makes Josh Heupel different from Jeremy Pruitt, Butch Jones or Derek Dooley? The Vols are still making some of the same mistakes they made when those guys were in charge, but there is a much different feel about things now. In the past when things would get tough, the Volunteers would lie down and seemingly crawl into a fetal position. Not now.....they jump right back up and get ready for the next play. They will get in your face and look as if they're saying, "You may win this ball game, but when it's over you will know you've been in a fight."

At the end of the game on Saturday, Alabama fans appeared to be cocky as always, lighting those victory cigars as if they had played sixty minutes on the field at Bryant-Denny Stadium. But I guarantee you, there wasn't a single one of them that wasn't at least a little bit worried when Tennessee scored to take a 14-7 lead in the second quarter. And I've heard all I want to hear about the "mustard bottles" and other trash thrown on the field by Tennessee fans in the Ole Miss game. Tide fans were seen throwing lit cigarettes at members of Tennessee's Pride of the Southland Band on Saturday night, and there were no bad calls they could complain about.

What does it mean when you are relevant again in the SEC? It means that you go into a game with a top 10 opponent and you're not a double-digit underdog. It means you will strike fear into the hearts of the teams you're getting ready to play as well as their fans. It means that you get respect from the media on a national scale and that results in top-25 appearances. It also means that you get disappointed when you don't win 10 games in a season, but you don't want to run your coach off. 

Tennessee football still hasn't reached that relevancy yet in the SEC, but it's coming baby.....it's coming!    

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Randy Smith can be reached at rsmithsports@epbfi.com

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