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Tennessee Athletics photo by Andrew Ferguson / Tennessee fifth-year senior quarterback Hendon Hooker was named Monday as SEC offensive player of the week after throwing for 316 yards and four touchdowns in Saturday night's 45-42 win at Kentucky.

KNOXVILLE — It surely seemed like the perfect spot for a Tennessee football collapse.

The UT defense had just surrendered a 28-yard pass to Kentucky on a fourth-and-24 from UK's own 34-yard-line. Roughly a minute remained in Saturday night's game, the Wildcats' Kroger Field was in full throat and the Big Orange defenders were about to line up for their 96th snap at the Tennessee 38 while clinging to a 45-42 lead.

Said defensive back Theo Jackson on Tuesday as he recalled the moment: "We knew we had to get a stop. We knew we had to at least hold them to a field goal."

Every college football fan in both states knows what happened next. Kentucky quarterback Will Levis threw four straight incompletions and UT won its fifth game of the season against four defeats to move within a single victory of bowl eligibility with three games to go, beginning with this weekend's visit to Neyland Stadium from No. 1 Georgia.

But as fellow defender Matt Butler also met with the media on Tuesday, someone asked him what might have transpired in the past, under coaches different than first-year head coach Josh Heupel and defensive coordinator Tim Banks.

"I've been here under a different time when something like that happens," began Butler. "And people hang their heads and try to throw blame. This year, that didn't happen at all. No shifting blame. (The huddle) was very stoic. OK, that happened. Let's go get 'em. Now we have to make four more plays to end the game, and that's what we did."

Georgia isn't Kentucky. Georgia's the nation's top team for a reason or five or 10. The Bulldogs are really, really good, maybe the best team on both sides of the line of scrimmage the SEC has seen in decades.

"I really think the number speaks for itself," said UT receivers coach Kodi Burns of a Bulldog defensive bunch ranked first nationally in scoring by more than a touchdown a game over runner-up Texas A&M — 6.56 points allowed to 14.67.

"I mean, statistically one of the better defenses, really the best defense in the country, and you can compare this defense to some of the better defenses that have come through the SEC at a couple other spots."

Of course, Burns also made sure to mention the Vols' pinball offense, which is averaging 38.2 ppg for the season, good for 15th nationally among FBS programs, but an even stronger 40.4 ppg over its last five starts, all against Southeastern Conference programs.

"Obviously once you play Tennessee, the threat of explosive plays is kind of what we do," said Burns, mindful that the Vols' first two touchdowns against Kentucky were on passes of 75 and 72 yards. "With this caliber (and) style of offense, we are liable to put up 14, 21 points in two or three minutes. It is going to be a fun battle. I can't wait to get out there on Saturday to see what our guys can do."

It's crazy to believe the Vols could pull it off. About as crazy as the UT brass deciding to designate this weekend as Homecoming when a preseason favorite to compete for the national championship was coming to Neyland Stadium. Almost as crazy as this ridiculously entertaining Vols squad having not yet sold out this showdown as of Monday afternoon.

Yes, it could be a bit nippy, but this may be the best fall foliage weekend of the season, the only SEC game past this one is Vanderbilt and with CBS in the house, it would seem a sellout would have been complete weeks ago, just after those twin routs of Missouri and South Carolina.

But back to those final four defensive snaps against Kentucky, back to digging deep and foregoing blame and fatigue and a loud and hostile crowd well enough to hang on against all odds.

"I think it's the culture of our program," said linebackers coach Brian Jean-Mary. "It's kind of what Coach Heupel is building. I've been doing this for a long time, and I've been on the wrong end of those games a lot of times. I think it speaks to the character of our team. The players believe in what Coach Heupel and what this staff is preaching because after that fourth down, I'm not sure many people watching thought the Vols were going to win."

Maybe not, but the players in UT's defensive huddle did.

Said Jean-Mary: "They never panicked. We called a couple pressures, and they ran them like it was the first play of the game. They found the energy and the will to go and run them. We got some pressure on (Will) Levis and that was the difference in the game."

The difference in this team from last season's 3-7 disaster is everywhere. In the coaching. In the playing. In the attitude of coaches and players alike. And regardless of what happens Saturday, it figures to get better fast.

Or as Burns noted Tuesday when discussing the recruiting edge the Vols may enjoy through the transfer portal: "The portal is just wide open and if I am a receiver in the portal and you got an opportunity to come to Tennessee, why not? The guys that are playing both transferred in, one from Mississippi State (JaVonta Payton) and one from USC (Velus Jones Jr.). We have been very successful here in just year one with transfers."

Given the mess they inherited from the former regime, they have been very successful, period. Whether they become successful enough to knock off Georgia on Saturday remains to be seen. But as Burns said, it should be a fun battle.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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