Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Tennessee football coach Jeremy Pruitt signals to his team during Saturday night's game against SEC East rival Georgia.

KNOXVILLE — It turned out to produce little more than false hope, at least against an opponent as balanced and bullish as No. 3 Georgia. And there has been far too much false hope floating around the University of Tennessee football program for far too long: 11 years at a minimum, perhaps as long as 20, which is one year clear of the 1998 national championship season.

Still, that 73-yard touchdown strike that Tennessee true freshman quarterback Brian Maurer deftly delivered to senior wideout Marquez Callaway in Saturday night's first quarter had the unmistakable feel of promise, of lasting improvement, of better days soon to visit the heretofore downtrodden Big Orange Nation.

Yes, it ended badly, at least for that less than overwhelming portion of Neyland Stadium dressed in UT orange. That tends to happen when you're facing a two-time defending Southeastern Conference East Division champion that entered this game having already won 14 straight against its division brothers.

But long before the final score became Georgia 43, Tennessee 14, the Volunteers actually led this one 14-10 a mere three seconds into the second quarter.

And the biggest reason for that — perhaps the only reason for that — was Maurer, who threw two of the prettiest touchdown passes by a UT quarterback inside Neyland Stadium since, oh, Tyler Bray at the very least.

"I thought Brian done a really good job in the first half," coach Jeremy Pruitt said. "We pushed them a little bit in the first half."

Added Callaway: "I'm not surprised. He does that all the time in practice."

That doesn't mean the Vols can shock No. 1 Alabama two weekends from now in Tuscaloosa. Maurer — assuming he remains upright between now and then; he was shaken up a time or two against the Bulldogs — makes the Vols somewhat better rather than suddenly good.

But better is in and of itself good when you are five games along and you've still yet to post your first victory against a Football Bowl Subdivision foe.

The Tennessee naysayers can point to the fact that the 1-4 Vols haven't had this pitiful a start since an 0-6 beginning in 1988 became a 5-6 final record. But just as that team rallied late, winning its final five games, this team, playing as it did in that opening 15 minutes and three seconds, can mount a similar rally this time around.

Especially if Maurer's right arm can continue to fire lasers to Callaway and Jauan Jennings, who snared Maurer's second touchdown toss from 12 yards out one play into the second quarter.

The key to such a turnaround will begin next Saturday, when Mississippi State (3-2, 1-1 SEC) comes to Neyland for a high noon kickoff. Until Maurer took the field for UT against Georgia, Mississippi State appeared to be a narrow favorite. But Maurer appears capable of giving the Vols the kind of quarterback play that can produce a victory against anyone in the bottom half of the SEC.

So now a win against the SEC West's Bulldogs appears possible, as do league games against Kentucky and Vanderbilt and possibly South Carolina. Throw in a nonconference win against the University of Alabama at Birmingham and you're suddenly no worse than 6-6 for the season and headed for a minor bowl game.

Yet for that to happen, a victory over Mississippi State would appear to be a must. Otherwise, the Vols would have to win at Missouri on Nov. 23, which would seem a long shot even with Maurer continuing to develop.

Nevertheless, the Vols certainly looked better than they had the last time they took the field, a 34-3 humbling at Florida on Sept. 21.

Saturday night, in a game in which penalty flags were thrown 17 times, only six were aimed at the Vols, who were penalized for 51 total yards compared to 107 for Georgia. They converted five of 12 third downs into firsts. Against one of the better defenses in college football, UT gained 343 total yards.

"Best total game we've played for awhile," Pruitt said. "And even then it wasn't enough."

No, it wasn't enough against the No. 3 team in the land. Nor will it be enough to take down top-ranked Bama on Oct. 19.

But against the SEC's mortals, at least as long as Maurer can build on those first 15 minutes and three seconds against Georgia, it just might be enough to win a conference game or two or three somewhere down the road.

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Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.