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AP photo by Vasha Hunt / Tennessee football coach Jeremy Pruitt argues an official's call during Saturday night's game at Alabama.

Oh, what might have been.

If you're a University of Tennessee football fan, that is surely your mantra after the Volunteers lost 35-13 to No. 1 Alabama late Saturday night.

If only reserve quarterback Jarrett Guarantano hadn't fumbled the ball into the end zone only to watch the Crimson Tide's Trevon Diggs return it 100 yards for the touchdown that pretty much decided the game.

If only starting quarterback Brian Maurer hadn't sustained a hit to the head early in the game that necessitated Guarantano being out there in the first place.

If only the officials hadn't felt the need to flag UT defensive end Darrell Taylor for a personal foul after his hit on reserve quarterback Mac Jones, who was struggling in his attempt to fill in for the injured Tua Tagovailoa.

That one had to be particularly frustrating for the Big Orange Nation because the hit wasn't what drew the penalty. What apparently drew the flag that kept alive a touchdown drive that put the Tide on top 28-13 was what Taylor did after the hit.

With both players on the ground, Taylor appeared to linger longer than he needed to and then gave Jones a push as the QB rose to his feet.

To be fair, Austin Nivison of 247Sports.com did write of the penalty, "In real time, it looked like a clear flag, but the replay showed that the shove Taylor gave Jones was relatively light." In defense of the official, the most important nine words in that sentence are "In real time, it looked like a clear flag," which is how the official sees it.

And in real time it did look like a legitimate penalty, even if it was on the relatively light side of the scale. But on replay, it looked like not much at all, which is what UT fans will surely focus on.

There was also the hit that knocked Maurer out of the game, which was initially called a targeting foul but reversed on review. So while the Tide got a first down on the light infraction involving Jones and Taylor, UT lost its starting quarterback and the targeting foul on appeal. If you're one of those fans who believes Bama gets all the breaks, those two calls certainly did nothing to dissuade your paranoia.

But this much must also be considered regarding this 13th straight loss to Bama: The Vols are clearly getting better with their schedule about to become easier. Not a single opponent the rest of the way is likely to be ranked when UT plays them.

Missouri, which seemed the team from that group most likely to beat the Vols when the two meet on the Tigers' turf in late November, lost at Vanderbilt on Saturday. This may mean nothing, because Mizzou is thus far 5-0 at home and 0-2 on the road, but if you can lose to Vanderbilt anywhere, you're beatable. Kentucky is Kentucky, wherever UT plays the Wildcats, who have lost 32 of their past 34 meetings with the Vols.

As for South Carolina, which visits Neyland Stadium on Saturday, the Gamecocks already have the signature win UT craves by virtue of their double-overtime victory at Georgia this month. Yet they appear beatable, and especially if the Big Orange can play with the passion and purpose displayed against Bama.

That said, the Vols have their own vulnerabilities at quarterback. Is coach Jeremy Pruitt done with Guarantano, as some believe? What if Maurer, having taken hits to the head the past two weeks, isn't cleared to play against South Carolina? Does anyone really believe third-teamer J.T. Shrout, a redshirt freshman, is ready to face Southeastern Conference defenses?

The California Kid may one day become a star, but it's hard to see how the Vols can beat the Gamecocks or almost anyone else if Shrout's the last QB standing.

Which brings us back to Pruitt and his angry outburst with Guarantano. Mediocre to poor though the redshirt junior from New Jersey may be where on-field results are concerned, he still seems superior to Shrout if Maurer can't go. Say what you will of the fumble, but the Vols moved the ball more than once with Guarantano behind center. Him being just OK might still be good enough to get the Vols to six wins and a bowl bid.

Yes, for those who bleed pale orange, this one hurts. It might have been a win. It should have been a much closer loss.

But Tagovailoa also played less than two full quarters before leaving with a high ankle sprain that required surgery Sunday. He was 11-of-12 passing for 155 yards with one interception when he left. It's doubtful the Vols would ever have had a chance to win had he not been injured.

One final thought about UT's 13 penalties. Five were routine 5-yarders. The targeting call against Daniel Bituli that forced the senior linebacker from the game early in the second quarter was a textbook example of the penalty. Any officiating crew that hadn't flagged Bituli should have been banned for the next game. Beyond that, the Tide were flagged for the same number of penalty yards (93) as the Vols.

Regardless, Pruitt becomes more impressive each game. A single example: At the end of the first half, his three timeouts still in his pocket, Pruitt used all of them to ice Joseph Bulovas before the Bama kicker attempted a field goal from 41 yards. The ploy worked. Bulovas missed, which kept UT within 21-10 at the break.

As he spoke to the media after the game, Guarantano's untimely fumble still on his mind, Pruitt said, "I would've liked to see us get the ball in there and seen what we could've done."

Next year, the Alabama game back in Knoxville and Tagovailoa surely off to the NFL, we may find out that nobody beats the Big Orange 14 years in a row.

some text Mark Wiedmer

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

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