KNOXVILLE -- Sundays have generally been soul-searching days the past two falls around the University of Tennessee.
Football players who came to UT in hopes of winning championships had lost 10 of their past 17 games before last weekend, and loyal fans who spent their hard-earned money on tickets and souvenirs watched the carnage from venues all over the country.
Last weekend was different. Last weekend felt sweet to the Volunteers, their coaches and their similarly-starved-for-success fans.
Saturday's demon-exorcising, 45-19 win over Georgia gave the Knoxville area a feeling it hadn't felt in a long time.
"We knew we had to show the world that we can play, and show the world that we're for real -- that we're not a game, we're not a joke," junior strongside linebacker LaMarcus Thompson said. "People start to follow off that, thinking, 'Ah, Tennessee, they're nothing, they're just the same as they were last year.'
"But we work hard. And this team has worked hard. And we showed that today."
Senior guard Jacques McClendon said Saturday showed the Vols "the product of what happens when you buy in.
"This is a very big win for us, obviously, because it's the difference between 2-4 and 3-3," added McClendon, a former Baylor School standout. "Coach (Lane Kiffin) came in here and tried to create a new culture, and that's to work hard and practice hard every day."
One middle-aged man approached a group of Vols just outside Neyland Stadium approximately one hour after Saturday's final whistle.
He didn't want an autograph from the players walking back to their dorms or cars. He didn't want a picture, either. He just wanted to thank them.
"It seems like forever since we've seen Tennessee football, guys ... and that was Tennessee football," the man told the players, who nodded in agreement and shook his hand.
The Vols didn't just beat Georgia. They crushed the Bulldogs. The score could have been much worse, if not for what Kiffin called a "pathetic" special teams performance.
Fans who'd begged for backup quarterback Nick Stephens got their wish in the fourth quarter, but only because starter Jonathan Crompton engineered the offensive half of the route with, by far, the best performance of his career.
But Crompton, whose level head after several losses baffled Big Orange Nation, was just as cautious in the immediate aftermath of Saturday's beatdown.
"I think, if I know our team well enough, a lot of guys will be here (Sunday) going at it just like it was a normal game week," Crompton said. "They'll be saying, 'Let's put this game behind us. Let's watch this one and then move on and go to Alabama.'"
The Vols get two weeks to prepare for the archrival Crimson Tide. Injured players will get much-needed time to rest and rehabilitate, as the team will practice just Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, and several coaches will be on the road recruiting.
"Obviously, it always helps, having momentum going into a bye week," Crompton said. "We count this pretty much as two wins, because nobody beats us (this) week.
"We're going to go out here and practice our tails off this week, and prepare just like it's game week, and then get ready for the following week."
There are bigger potential scalps than the Bulldogs to collect in the season's second half -- third-ranked Alabama, Ole Miss and South Carolina all have better records -- and the Vols hope to claim bigger wins en route to bowl qualification.
"When you want to be good at something, you've got to do it over and over again until you get it right," McClendon said. "We knew as long we kept practicing like we do, kept practicing hard, that it was going to click. (Saturday) just ended up being that day. But we can't be settled on this thing.
"We got a glimpse of what we can do. Now we've just got to get some consistency and do it throughout the year."
Junior defensive end Chris Walker said the Vols have "a big momentum swing going down to Tuscaloosa," and senior tailback Montario Hardesty didn't disagree -- provided the Vols work after a win as diligently as they did after defeats.
"We're going to have a couple of more days off this week, I guess," Hardesty said. "But we're still going to be on the practice field, and we're going to attack the practice field like we always do. We try to correct what we're doing each day, and just get better. I don't think that's going to change. We're going to keep working hard, our coaches are going to continue preparing us good, and we're just going to keep it going.
"When next Saturday gets here, and we go to Alabama, we're going to try to keep the momentum going."
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