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Tennessee's John Kelly (4) stiff arms Tennessee Tech's Josh Poplar (7). The Tennessee Tech Golden Eagles visited the Tennessee Volunteers in NCAA football action at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville on November 5, 2016.
some text Mark Wiedmer

KNOXVILLE — Jalen Who?

One day down the road — way, way down the road — the University of Tennessee football team may actually miss Ol' What's His Name, that former Big Orange running back who wore jersey No. 1.

Lament or loathe that guy, ball carriers who stand 6-foot-4, weigh 240 pounds and can run with the wind aren't easily replaced.

Even those lacking loyalty and perseverance.

So attempting to bounce back from three straight losses without "Barely Seen and Never Hurd (oops, Heard)" could have been tough on all the remaining Volunteers on Saturday afternoon against Tennessee Tech, even if the Golden Eagles won't be mistaken for a Southeastern Conference foe any time soon.

Not that any of the 98,343 Volniacs visiting Neyland Stadium for homecoming necessarily viewed this eventual 55-0 victory as anything less than a very important football time in Tennessee.

Instead, when it was announced that the youngster John Kelly would be starting at a certain running back position once manned by someone else, that crowd let out a prolonged, passionate cheer more than 20 minutes from kickoff.

And when that same 5-9, 212-pound Kelly broke through a sweet hole created by Tennessee's occasionally maligned offensive line on his way to a 73-yard touchdown run less than 10 minutes into the game, the crowd roared as if it wanted to make sure a certain former Vol could hear them from as far away as, oh, Hendersonville, Tenn.

Perhaps because of that, Kelly made sure to wait for his offensive linemen to reach the end zone to celebrate with him, especially guard Jashon Robertson.

"My brothers know I'm playing for them every time I touch the ball," Kelly told the media, a broad smile on his face. "I wanted to make sure Jashon knows what he means to me."

If he didn't before that score, if that whole offensive line didn't, they know now.

UT coach Butch Jones seemed to want everyone to know that one prima donna's exit had zero impact on this happy homecoming rout of TTU. He tried to assure anyone willing to listen that no one even noticed a certain player's unexpected exit, that it was much ado about nothing within the Tennessee football family.

Or as Jones said of Team 120's sixth win of the season in nine outings, "There wasn't anything going on inside our building regarding a distraction. That was manufactured outside this building."

And maybe it was. But it sure didn't feel that way. It felt like these fans and these players were performing an exorcism of past demons, even those who may have once been members of the home team.

Normally as controversial as vanilla ice cream, senior quarterback Josh Dobbs said, "Losing one guy during the week is not a (big enough) thing to throw off this team."

At least not against an FCS foe such as Tech, which entered Neyland with a 3-5 record.

So the Vols led 38-0 at halftime. They basically tripled the Golden Eagles in rushing yards (177 to 60) for the game and almost doubled them in passing yards (294 to 164), doing all of that good work while getting more than doubled in time of possession (41:16 to 18:44). Much of that last stat could be attributed to the ridiculous ease with which they scored.

In fact, Dobbs was so good that he had more touchdown passes (3) than incompletions (1) while completing 12 of 13 throws.

Beyond that, in what actually may have drawn the loudest cheer of the day, Arkansas drubbed Florida 31-10, which means that one more Gators league loss — assuming the Vols can take care of business against Kentucky, Missouri and Vanderbilt — will place UT in the SEC title game for the first time since 2007.

Quite possibly with that in mind, an unusually emotional, almost defiant Jones said afterward, "We need to celebrate small victories."

Especially with so many potentially big victories once more out there on the horizon for anyone loyal enough to place team above self, which might also explain why some guy's name we can't seem to remember chose to wear No. 1 until his divisive time in orange was done.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com

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