Wiedmer: Grit and grind alone won't win Vols the SEC East [photos]

Wiedmer: Grit and grind alone won't win Vols the SEC East [photos]

September 6th, 2017 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Tennessee linebacker Daniel Bituli (35) forces Georgia Tech quarterback TaQuon Marshall (16) to fumble the ball during the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Monday, Sept. 4, in Atlanta, Ga.

Photo by C.B. Schmelter

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No matter when you read this column, more than 24 hours have passed since the Tennessee Volunteers pulled off their Mercedes-Benz Miracle against Georgia Tech on Monday night in the Big Peach.

So with at least a little time to digest that improbable-bordering-on-impossible-victory, should the Big Orange Nation feel better, worse or still undecided today about Team 121 and the long-term potential of the fifth Tennessee squad to call Butch Jones its coach?

As for yours truly, let me just say that I'm thankful my laptop comes with a "delete" key because the words I thought I'd be sending from Mercedes-Benz Stadium for much of that Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game — especially regarding Jones — didn't remotely resemble those that ultimately wound up in our paper following Tennessee's 42-41 double-overtime win.

Because winning at least momentarily erased the fact that the Vols were doubled by Tech in almost every important statistical category except the final score. Then again, that win did come against a program that had won three straight games and five of its last six against Southeastern Conference foes.

It came with UT's potentially best linebacker already lost for the season and its possible all-conference wideout, Jauan Jennings, knocked out early against GT.

Said walk-on defensive lineman Paul Bain — quite possibly the most important hero of this win — as to why the Vols have so often staged these comebacks: "We're just cut from a different cloth than a lot of teams. We were made for this and pressure-filled situations. We were made for the grind and we never had doubt, even though we were down."

If Jones has an overriding strength as a coach, this may be it. He not only signs good players, he signs good people. Good, bright, decent, hard-working people. The Vols don't always seem prepared to win when a game begins, but they almost never quit before the final whistle.

Just to have Bain — a walk-on who works two jobs to help ends meet — eloquently describe the Vols as being cut from a different cloth speaks to these guys' internal makeup and drive.

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And while it appeared Tech kicker Shawn Davis likely would have missed his potential game-winning 37-yard field goal whether Bain blocked it or not, the Atlanta native's outreached hand ended any doubt and forced overtime.

This isn't to say there aren't a multitude of issues going forward. Quarterback Quinten Dormady could be a bit more accurate on his passes at times. His receivers — excepting the wonderful efforts of Marquez Callaway — could be way more sticky-fingered. If this is the best defensive coordinator Bob Shoop can come up with after having all summer to prepare for Tech's tricky Flexbone offense, perhaps the Vols should pay his Penn State buyout if he'll agree to return to the Nittany Lions, or at least leave UT.

Because of that, because the defense appeared so overmatched against the Yellow Jackets until Rashaan Gaulden forced a late fumble that almost assuredly prevented Tech from salting the game away, it's difficult to feel too good about this victory other than the rather gargantuan fact that it is a victory rather than a loss.

To return to previous years, the Tech game followed a perplexing pattern that began that frigid Nov. 1 night at South Carolina in 2014, when Josh Dobbs led the Vols to an improbable overtime win, which has since been followed by similarly miraculous victories over Georgia in 2015, Florida and Georgia a year ago and now this remarkable triumph to kick off the 2017 season.

Of course, just as last season proved you can rely on such efforts only so often before you're too tired or emotionally spent to keep repeating them, the Vols would be wise not to continue to count on the cloth their players are cut from or their love of the grind to keep manufacturing football miracles.

Winning more than eight or nine games requires more than intangibles. It requires preparation and execution and superior strategy, especially if the Vols expect to capture a very winnable SEC East for the first time since 2007. And on those fronts, Jones and his staff appear too often to still be lacking as his fifth season begins.

"Again, I just think we have a lot of grit," he said in the early minutes of Tuesday morning. "Probably the downside to that is it's probably put 20 years on me."

Whether Jones realizes it or not, it isn't making the Big Orange Nation any younger, either.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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