Last season, Tennessee proved to be more of a late-game punchline to a sad and depressing joke than it was an SEC East power.
The Vols threw away three, two-touchdown leads in losses, routinely found creative ways to play not to lose instead of playing to win and lacked the killer instinct that championship-caliber teams need in crunch time.
That instinct was apparent in the 45-24 win over Virginia Tech, in front of 156,990 fans at Bristol Motor Speedway—the largest crowd to ever watch a college football game in person.
This game didn’t matter in the race for the SEC East because, obviously, Virginia Tech plays in the ACC. But it mattered to the 2016 Vols—big time.
Two things got accomplished that were imperative to the Vols living up to the preseason hype that landed them leading the field into Turn 1 as SEC East favorites.
They needed to know they could close out a big game in front of a tough opponent with the lead—which is something they did after punting to the Hokies up 14 points in the fourth quarter with momentum swinging quickly to the opponents’ sideline.
But Micah Abernathy recovered his second fumble of the quarter, and Tennessee’s offensive stars put it away.
Joshua Dobbs—who was a non-factor on the ground in the season-opening overtime win over Appalachian State—scooted in from 27 yards out to cap off a four-play drive following a Hokies fumble to stretch the Vols lead to 38-17, and essentially put the game out of reach. It was the last of Dobbs‘ five touchdowns on the night, and a sign that the Vols offense found its identity inside the unfamiliar setting in the middle of a NASCAR track.
“I think we woke up a little bit,” head coach Butch Jones said on ESPN’s broadcast. “This team has learned how to have intensity for 60 minutes.”
Jones might be exaggerating on that 60 minutes, though.
For the second straight week, Tennessee looked sluggish early.
“We started a little slow, but our defense did a great job having our back, putting us in positive situations and then we were able to capitalize,” Dobbs said on ESPN. “Our tempo really played a big part.”
As Clay Travis of Fox Sports noted on Twitter, the run the Vols embarked on to dig out of the hole not only made a game of it, but made it a laugher in favor of the orange and white.
Show me an SEC East team that has shown that fight on consecutive weeks?
You’ll be scrambling for a while, because that team doesn’t exist.
Georgia struggled in a 26-24 win over Nicholls out of the FCS on Saturday, and that’s not even a good FCS team. While they have improved a little bit the Colonels have won nine games since the start of the 2011 season. Florida looked great on Saturday in a dominating win over Kentucky but struggled dispatching of UMass—one of the worst teams an SEC team faced in Week 1.
Every other team in the SEC East appears to be a hot mess.
Tennessee now has comeback wins over a solid Appalachian State team and showed massive improvement in another emphatic, comeback win over Virginia Tech in a big-game setting that showed the Vols have solved some of their issues from the season-opener.
Instead of hiding his ability as a rusher, Dobbs paced himself to 106 yards and two touchdowns on 14 carries. Instead of getting pushed around at the line of scrimmage, the Vols played up to their ability and dominated when it mattered most. Instead of treating big passing plays like they’re extinct, Dobbs dialed up Josh Malone for a 38-yard touchdown to tie the game at 14 and set up Alvin Kamara beautifully on a 23-yard swing pass to build a three-score lead in the third quarter.
Sometimes you need to be tested to know you’re championship-worthy, and Tennessee is well on its way to deserving that moniker.
It has come up clutch in two straight games—one against solid, yet uninspiring opponents at home and another against an ACC power in one of the most unique environments in college football history. In the process, it discovered that it has the ability to rebound, the ability to close and the ability to successfully address problems that it might not have anticipated.
Last week, it looked like Tennessee’s title hopes had been derailed after getting whipped at the line of scrimmage and Dobbs struggled to settle down.
It got back on track at Bristol Motor Speedway, and is flying around Turn 2 into a Week 4 showdown with defending SEC East champion Florida that will determine the early landscape in the SEC East race.
Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and national college football video analyst for Bleacher Report as well as a host on Bleacher Report Radio on SiriusXM 83. Follow Barrett on Twitter @BarrettSallee.
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Source: Bleacher Report -SEC Football