Wiedmer: Vols better by a bunch

Wiedmer: Vols better by a bunch

September 1st, 2014 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

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Tennessee running back Jalen Hurd breaks up the middle of the line.

Tennessee running back Jalen Hurd breaks up the...

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

POLL: Will the Vols have a winning season?

KNOXVILLE - Maybe Tennessee football coach Butch Jones meant it as a warning and maybe he didn't.

But after the Volunteers crushed Utah State 38-7 on Sunday evening, a single statement from the coach should surely concern this Saturday's opponent, Arkansas State. Said Jones:

"The most growth and development usually happens between week one and week two."


And for the long-suffering Big Orange Nation, after four straight losing seasons, F-I-N-A-L-L-Y.

"You can't focus on one guy," said senior quarterback Justin Worley, whose wonderful stat line -- 27-of-38 for 273 yards and three touchdowns -- means every opposing defense from this point forward better focus on him. "We've got a lot of guys who can hurt you."

One stat to back that thought: Worley completed passes to nine Vols in the opening half, which included UT scoring 14 points in 14 seconds to all but wrap this one up in the opening period.

Yet the feel-good moments -- or maybe that should be feel-grr-r-r-e-a-t moments -- were everywhere:

Thirteen straight pass completions during one stretch by Worley. Senior linebacker A.J. Johnson's first career interception. Tight end Brendan Downs catching a touchdown. The announcement that the student section will henceforth be known as the "Rocky Top Rowdies," though a Google search showed that such a term has been used for UT students inside Thompson-Boling Arena during basketball season at least as far back as 2007. The appearance of former Baylor School product Colton Jumper at linebacker early in the fourth quarter. The continued appearance of the oldie-goldie tune "Hey Baby" by the marching band, the reports of its demise apparently greatly and thankfully exaggerated.

And, at the finish, Johnson leading the band in "Rocky Top," as some guy named Peyton used to do.

But what it all really means is a different matter.

Yes, Team 118 would appear to be noticeably superior to its Team 117 predecessor. Yes, Utah State's past history against the power five conferences would suggest that this triumph shouts rather than whispers. After all, the Aggies' last eight losses over a span of 33 games were by a combined 48 points. The widest margin in those eight defeats had been by 11 (34-23) to Boise State in 2013.

Moreover, Utah State's defense had forced at least one turnover in 23 straight games. It forced none against the Vols, despite having five starters and 18 lettermen back on that side of the ball from last year's 9-5 team.

So from those points alone it's fair to assume these guys may be more than capable of producing the Vols' first winning season in five years, and possibly much better than that -- something in the range of eight wins, games at Oklahoma and Georgia suddenly its only seemingly certain defeats.

Think about it. South Carolina was crushed at home by Texas A&M. Alabama looked less than unbeatable against West Virginia. Same with Ole Miss against Boise State. And Vanderbilt looked downright wretched against Temple.

Suddenly, Tennessee looks pretty good. Suddenly, the autumn of 2014 is filled with anticipation rather than resignation. Suddenly, Jones's reliance on such mantras as "brick by brick" and the "power of one" don't seem so corny and cheesy after all.

Trumpeted by Utah State as a Heisman hopeful, Aggies senior quarterback Chuckie Keeton finished 18-for-35 with two interceptions, one touchdown and 144 total yards. The Vols surrendered only 244 yards while piling up 383. UT led the first-down battle 24-11 and allowed Utah State to convert only 3 of 14 third downs into firsts as the Vols offense converted 8 of 18.

Again, Worley on his multiple options and weapons: "Just being able to throw a bubble [screen] and know they can take it 40 yards. I wasn't as nervous as in the past. The game moved slower."

Not that Jones seemed as outwardly pleased as one might have thought, though that could also be a sign that he believes this team is capable of more than originally thought. Praise could lead to complacency. Criticism might produce further improvement.

"We didn't do as well on third-down conversions as I'd like," he said. "Didn't like our offensive rhythm in the first half."

But he couldn't find much to dislike beyond that. And the coach's smile was hard to ignore, regardless of his words.

"It's always a lot easier to teach," he said, "after a win."

Especially one won by 31 points against a team you were favored to edge by a touchdown.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.