KNOXVILLE - We forget sometimes that they're basically still kids playing a kids' game, even if it's often an insanely violent one.
So while the University of Tennessee's more discerning fans might understandably grumble, if not blow an entire gasket, over their Volunteers' narrow 55-48 homecoming win over Troy on Saturday, the UT players didn't necessarily see it that way.
"It was pretty nice," said junior wideout Cordarrelle Patterson, whose 219 receiving yards were a very big reason the Big Orange broke a four-game losing streak. "We haven't won in so long. When we all got to the locker room, everybody had a smile on their face. It just feels great to win."
And it was great to see those smiles, to hear the laughs, to feel a positive vibe inside the UT locker room for the first time since Sept. 22, when the Vols outlasted Akron inside a similarly nervous Neyland, 47-26.
So even if a lot of the Big Orange Nation seemed to be walking around muttering, "Any win is better than a loss; any win is better than a loss; REALLY, any win is better than a loss," even as they roll their eyes over 721 yards and 48 points allowed to Sun Belt Conference member Troy -- which now stands the same 4-5 on the season as the Vols -- the players really believe it feels great to win.
"Any time you get a win," defensive back Byron Moore said, "you have to be happy."
Not every UT fan is going to be happy until head coach Derek Dooley is dismissed -- or at least defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri -- or both.
And Dooley increasingly seems to be distancing himself from his first-year defensive coordinator, saying, "It's a bad defense." And, "We really didn't have an answer for anything." And -- cover your ears, Sal -- "Nothing's going well on defense. ... And it all begins with coaching."
But other than that, Dooley and Sunseri couldn't be closer.
Still, the head coach also said of his D, "As bad as we were on defense -- and we were really bad -- we stopped them four of their last five, and that's the reason we won."
And there is some hope in that, which is really all any Volniac can reasonably hope for nine games into a 12-game season that can't possibly produce a victory over a ranked team before a bowl game, given that only unranked Missouri, Vanderbilt and catatonic Kentucky remain.
Whether Dooley's inability to yet beat a ranked opponent in 15 attempts ultimately dooms him is uncertain. Only UT athletic director Dave Hart knows that, and he isn't saying.
Then again, the fact that the coach the Big Orange Nation lusts after -- Jon Gruden -- isn't exactly denying interest in a job yet to open may say volumes.
But for now, all that's certain is that the Vols won, and whether shakily or not, they came from behind to do so in the closing minutes, which is something they've too seldom done under both Dooley and quarterback Tyler Bray.
"In the past, we have kind of faded away and not finished like we should," said Bray, who set a UT single-game passing record with 530 yards, breaking Peyton Manning's 15-year-old mark of 523 set against Kentucky in 1997.
"Today we went out and finished. It just goes to show that we can do it."
Added Dooley: "We survived. We went 1-0 and now we have to try to go 1-0 next week, any way we can."
He's right, of course, that the defense is awful. Epically so. It's almost impossible to believe a program that believes itself to be a top-half SEC program can have a defense this bad. Especially when its coordinator was the linebackers coach for national champ Alabama last season.
Said Dooley: "It's ridiculous. ... We used to grind them out 9-6. Now we grind them out 55-48. It's a new era. But we found a way to win. That's what matters."
In a week just ended that began so badly for so many in this nation's Northeast, in a week to come at the ballot box that will mean so much for this nation's future, let us hope it doesn't matter too much for anyone save the UT coaches and players.
If for this week only, let the Big Orange Nation allow the Vols' smiles and happiness to hang around at least until Missouri comes calling six days from today.