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AP photo by Wade Payne / Tennessee football coach Jeremy Pruitt and UAB counterpart Bill Clark talk before their teams' game Saturday night at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville.

KNOXVILLE — If the University of Tennessee football team's 30-7 victory over the University of Alabama at Birmingham is any indication, the Big Orange Nation once more has a football program to make its Pride of the Southland Marching Band proud.

Those words are written after watching both the UT alumni band and its varsity counterpart perform at halftime of the school's homecoming game against the Blazers on Saturday night.

In one of those annual autumn rituals in Volsville that never gets old, even after 36 years in this job, this year's alums and current band members combined on "Amazing Grace" before joining Lee Greenwood on his epic anthem "God Bless the U.S.A." then wrapping up with the alma mater.

To borrow a Yiddish word from an old "Saturday Night Live" sketch, you couldn't help but get a little verklempt watching it all unfold.

Not that the UT fans don't seem similarly overcome with emotion as they watch football coach Jeremy Pruitt's second Volunteers squad go from scary bad (Georgia State) to scary good in a span of 10 short weeks.

Keep in mind, UAB entered this game with a 6-1 record, even it was forged against Conference USA competition, which isn't exactly on par with the Southeastern Conference.

Still, 6-1 is 6-1 and the Blazers were averaging a healthy 26 points a game prior to arriving at Neyland Stadium.

Against the Big Orange, their lone touchdown came with only 2:35 to go in the game, a score to finally send the vast majority of the 85,791 fans heading for their cars and out of the 42-degree air.

But just the fact that they waited until the shutout was lost says much about how these fans, so long waiting for a team they could embrace after Halloween, have come to love these Vols, even if they still stand just 4-5 overall with three SEC games still to play.

No wonder Pruitt said after the 2019 Vols' fourth win in nine games to date, but also their third victory in their past four contests: "This is a fun group to be around."

It has certainly become a much more fun season than anyone could have predicted after that opening loss to Georgia State, which was picked to finish last in the Sun Belt Conference, which isn't supposed to be as good as UAB's C-USA.

And that almost entirely comes back to Pruitt and how he's turned an 0-2 start against two non-Power Five Conference teams into a potential bowl team.

He never panicked. He never threw players under the bus. He just went back to work, day after day, week after week until his football team began come together, knocking off Mississippi State, scaring Alabama, thumping South Carolina, overwhelming UAB.

One comment from Pruitt after the win over UAB that shows his faith in his assistants, beginning with defensive coordinator Derrick Ansley.

"I love coaching defensive backs," Pruitt said. "If I couldn't coach defensive backs, I wouldn't coach. But for me, Derrick Ansley's a guy that I don't have to be in the (defensive backs) room."

To that end, when defensive back Bryce Thompson was asked about his three first-half interceptions (tying a school record for most in a game), his response was a direct nod to Ansley: "Perfect play calling."

That all-for-one, one-for-all mentality across the board is beginning to pay big benefits. The defense is stout, as one might expect from Pruitt. But the offense is better than anyone should have expected given the fact the Vols played three quarterbacks against UAB in starter J.T. Stout, Jarrett Guarantano and part-timer Jauan Jennings, who still had five catches for 70 yards at wide receiver.

A single moment to help fans understand how tough Guarantano is after breaking a bone in his hand last week against South Carolina.

Having undergone surgery on Sunday, having screws placed in his left (non-throwing hand), having a soft cast on his hand and wrist, he still played notable minutes against UAB, finishing with 13 completions in 21 attempts with one interception for 147 yards and one touchdown to Eric Gray.

Asked about that wrist, Guarantano said, "The pain is constant."

Asked to rate that pain on a scale of 1 to 10, he smiled and said, "My dad would tell me to say a 3. My mom would tell me to say 11."

And you wonder why Gray said of Guarantano: "Just shows how tough a player he is and what kind of person he is."

They are all looking so tough at the moment that Pruitt even said of kicker Brent Cimaglia, who in addition to making three field goals weighed into a brief altercation involving offensive lineman Brandon Kennedy to offer support: "I think he could play middle linebacker."

When it ended Saturday night, the alumni band and current band banded together to deliver passionate renditions of "Rocky Top" and "The Tennessee Waltz" as the football team rocked back and forth a few feet away, joining in another longtime Big Orange tradition that's been too often absent for too long a time.

The only thing lacking was the band's classic Circle Drill.

Then again, it's nice to think the football team's habit of running around in circles this decade may finally be at an end. If this continues, this season will certainly be rated far closer to an 11 than a 3.

some text Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.

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