KNOXVILLE -- Those closest to the Tennessee football program know that Gerald Jones speaks his mind.
So it's not surprising to hear Jones say moments after Saturday's thrilling overtime win at Kentucky that UT probably would have lost a similar game earlier this season.
Asked point blank if the Vols would have tough enough or good enough to overcome Saturday's obstacles earlier in the season, Jones paused.
"I really don't know, but if I have to give you an answer, I would say no," Jones said. "Unfortunately, probably not. But this team has done a 180 from six or eight week ago."
Jones isn't alone in those thoughts. Even first-year head coach Lane Kiffin admitted Saturday's results could have been drastically different in September or October.
"If that same (Kentucky) team was as good as they are earlier in the year, we wouldn't have won that game," Kiffin said. "But we are definitely a completely different team now. We don't make as many mistakes."
The Vols (7-5, 4-4 Southeastern Conference) still made more than enough mistakes to lose in Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday night.
But, for the first time all season, they overcame those errors and beat a similarly-talented team in a close game.
"We're trying to become a championship program, and winning games like this is a big step in the right direction," junior tight end Luke Stocker said. "We've been on the losing end of too many of these, so it feels great to finally get a close one against a good team."
Senior quarterback Jonathan Crompton shook off an early interception that was returned for a touchdown and made several big throws to finish 13-for-23 with 220 yards and a game-tying touchdown in the third quarter.
UT's defense suffocated the Wildcats after giving up ground throughout the first half, and they stuffed Kentucky inside the 10-yard line in the final minute. The Wildcats took the ball at the Vols' 37 with 2 minutes, 21 seconds left, but they merely forced overtime. Cornerback Dennis Rogan peeled off lead blocker Derrick Locke and stopped quarterback Morgan Newton's possible touchdown scramble on third down.
"We started playing what I like to call 'Tennessee defense' in the second half," said senior linebacker Rico McCoy, who again led the Vols with 13 tackles. "It was a big change from the way we played in the first half."
Senior center Cody Sullins overcame a crucial holding penalty in overtime and helped pave the way for senior tailback Montario Hardesty's game-winning, 20-yard touchdown run. Stocker, a Kentucky native who allowed the Wildcats back into the game with a late fumble, also delivered a punishing block on the final play. In fact, Sullins, Stocker, left guard Cory Sullins, right guard Jacques McClendon and right tackle Aaron Douglas blocked so efficiently that fullback Kevin Cooper couldn't find anyone to hit -- so the former Baylor School star simply trailed his tailback to the end zone.
McCoy, tackle Wes Brown and linebacker LaMarcus Thompson, all upperclassmen, toughed out knee injuries to force or recover Kentucky fumbles.
"We made a few bad run fits and missed some big tackles in the first half," UT defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin said. "But we knew we had a good game plan, and in the second half, we really came out and started executing it."
The same could be said for the Vols' entire regular season, according to Jones and several others.
"It took a little time for us to become the team that Coach (Lane) Kiffin wanted us to be, but I think we're slowly getting there," Jones said.
The Vols, like most of their SEC peers, anxiously await news of their bowl fate. Saturday's win bumped UT into second place in the SEC Eastern Division standings -- thanks to a tie-breaking blowout victory over Georgia -- making the Outback Bowl arguably their most likely destination. The Cotton Bowl is also a possibility, if it takes the Vols in exchange for SEC West program Ole Miss.
McCoy said he never dreamed that 7-5 would be a successful season when he came to UT, but the past few seasons have allowed him to "appreciate" this team's results.
"I'm grateful for another win, and to go out as a winner in the regular season," McCoy said. "As a senior, I definitely didn't want to lose to Kentucky. We've come a long way here recently, and I can appreciate this because of everything we've gone through to get here.
"Now we just need to go finish if off with a nice bowl win."
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