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AP photo by L.G. Patterson / Tennessee running back Marcus Pierce Jr. (30) scores a touchdown as teammate Ramel Keyton celebrates during the second half of Saturday's 62-24 SEC win at Missouri.

The University of Tennessee's football game at Missouri was officially only halfway complete Saturday afternoon when veteran SEC Network commentator Dave Neal perfectly summed up the first two quarters for the host Tigers.

Said Neal: "I don't know if it could go any worse, really, if you're Missouri."

Or any better for the Volunteers, who led 45-10 at intermission on their way to a 62-24 victory.

Yes, Tennessee is now but 3-2 overall and 1-1 within the brutal Southeastern Conference. Yes, a team already at least a dozen shy of the 85 scholarship players the NCAA allows seems to be losing even more bodies to injury about as often as the Pride of the Southland Band strikes up "Rocky Top."

And, yes, Missouri's defense spent most of the contest against the Vols acting as if it thought this was a game of two-hand touch instead of tackle football. Rarely has an SEC football team looked more inept or uninterested on defense than the Tigers against the Vols.

Yet at least some of that wretchedness must be credited to first-year Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel, who looks more and more like the nation's best hire from this past offseason.

It's not just how much better the Vols are than a year ago. It's how much better they're getting each week. Or in Heupel's words: "Best that we've been since I've been here. From last week to today, there was a ton of growth."

The growth has been there from the beginning. Against a veteran Pittsburgh Panthers team in the second week of the season, they were 40 yards from overtime when backup quarterback Hendon Hooker threw an unfortunate interception. Against a high-powered Florida team last weekend, UT went on the road and grabbed a 14-10 lead in the Swamp before getting overwhelmed in the final half by the more talented, experienced Gators.

Then came the Missouri game and a second straight road trip to open SEC play. Despite having an injury-riddled offensive line, the Vols didn't allow so much as a quarterback pressure until the final minute of the third quarter. In that same period, facing third-and-18, Hooker threw a 25-yard touchdown pass to Cedric Tillman. UT rushed for a preposterous 452 yards and threw for 225 to finish with an astounding 677 yards of total offense.

To dig more deeply into those numbers, six Vols recorded single runs of 19 or more yards against Mizzou, and three had runs of 30 or more yards: leading rusher Tiyon Evans (156 yards and three touchdowns), Len'Neth Whithead and backup quarterback Joe Milton III.

Of course, Evans does appear to be a wee bit more special than the rest. Just ask Hooker, who said of Evans' 92-yard touchdown run: "Tiyon is a bad man. Him breaking it and getting to his top speed in no time — he's just amazing to watch."

Also, as Heupel pointed out, when that many long runs take place in one game, everyone — linemen and skill players — are executing blocks both along the line of scrimmage and downfield, teamwork at its finest.

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AP photo by L.G. Patterson / Tennessee football coach Josh Heupel argues a call with an official in the fourth quarter of Saturday's game at Missouri.

And just in case you thought Heupel's coaching chops were limited to the offense, he has assembled a veteran defensive staff that is not only heading up a unit that's plus-six in turnover margin, it has developed a rushing defense that has allowed a per-game average of fewer than 70 yards on the ground if you discount the Florida loss.

Add up all those positives, and the talk of UT maybe being strong enough to finish 6-6 and earn a bowl bid might now be revisited to wonder if the Vols might not be tough enough to finish 7-5 or even 8-4. Because other than upcoming games against Alabama, Georgia and Ole Miss, it's hard to see them being an underdog against anyone else on their schedule.

Plus, good as Lane Kiffin's Ole Miss Rebels have looked at times this year, they must still come to Neyland Stadium, which should deliver an interesting reception for the former UT coach.

Moreover, if this is what Heupel's genius is capable of in year one, what might the future hold for this program under his guidance? Is next year the year the Vols will have a chance to challenge Georgia and Florida as the Beast of the SEC East? Will it be the year after that?

Given the kind of dominant performance Georgia turned in against previously unbeaten Arkansas on Saturday by winning 37-0, it may take at least a couple of years for the Vols to catch up to the Dawgs, but the Big Orange should prove to be a big headache for everyone else in the SEC not named Alabama.

After next Saturday's visit from South Carolina, the schedule does indeed get tougher. And at some point, all these injuries could quite easily translate into losses.

But if this is also true, Heupel's words are sure to be an early Christmas present for a victory-starved Big Orange Nation.

"This is the tip of the iceberg," he said, "of what we're capable of."

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Mark Wiedmer

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

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