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AP photo by Wade Payne / Ole Miss football coach Lane Kiffin was a winner Saturday night as he returned to Tennessee as a head coach for the first time since his lone season in Knoxville in 2009.

"This is what college football is all about."

The words belonged to Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin in the final minutes before his Rebels would take the field at a sold-out, jam-packed, loud-and-proud Neyland Stadium against Tennessee on Saturday night in Knoxville.

Once upon a time, you may have heard, Kiffin coached the Volunteers. For one season in 2009. To hear the boos that greeted Kiffin both before the game and at halftime, the Big Orange Nation was in no mood to forgive his exit after that one season to take his "dream job," as he called it at the time, at the University of Southern California.

And Kiffin being Kiffin, he seemed to delight in egging on that anger near the end of an opening half that ended with the Rebels ahead 24-12. Having failed to use any of his three first-half timeouts before the Vols lined up to attempt a field goal inside the final five seconds, he used them all, one directly after the other, in an attempt to ice kicker Chase McGrath — himself a former USC Trojan — on his half-ending 39-yarder.

The ploy didn't work. The kick was good. But Kiffin's smirks after each stoppage of the clock let anyone concerned about such things know he was more than willing to continue to get under the skin of Tennessee fans.

After all, for better or worse, at least in Kiffin's mind, that's what college football is all about.

But in a bigger picture, the atmosphere in Neyland throughout this electric, emotional evening, just might be what Tennessee football figures to be about going forward under first-year coach Josh Heupel.

The first half certainly wasn't the Vols at their best this season, at least not the two Southeastern Conference games prior to this one against Missouri and South Carolina.

The Big Orange put up a big 28 points in the first quarter of each of those two resounding victories. It had less than half that in the first two quarters against Ole Miss.

Yet there's a reason Heupel, his staff and this Tennessee team talk about it being a 60-minute game, about playing fast and furious from the opening kick until the final horn.

The Vols' goal is to wear you down, zap your energy, leave you gasping for air as they grow stronger by the minute and the quarter.

Or as SEC Network analyst Jordan Rodgers, the former Vanderbilt quarterback, noted in the third quarter with the Vols charging back: "(Heupel's offense has brought) the promise and the hope this fan base has from what it's seen throughout this season."

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AP photo by Wade Payne / Tennessee defensive lineman Omari Thomas reacts after making a tackle for a safety during the first half of Saturday night's home game against Ole Miss.

So Neyland was thunderous and overflowing as it hadn't been in years, and magnificently turned into the world's largest orange-and-white checkerboard. And regardless of this emotional contest's outcome, the Tennessee football program won merely by creating an atmosphere nearly certain to impress any recruit who was in the giant stadium or all who watched it on television.

If this is what the Heupel and the program are now selling — this atmosphere, this playing style, this grand tradition once more on the rise — buyers will be numerous.

Yet regardless of how this season ultimately plays out, whether in a decidedly minor bowl should the Vols finish 6-6, or in something bigger should they wind up 7-5 or 8-4, it's probably safe to predict the fans are back for the foreseeable future, with or without a Lane Kiffin to boisterously boo.

Even on television, the numerous performances of "Rocky Top" were deafening. The crowd of more than 102,000 appeared to stand and yell throughout, pom-poms constantly shaking. It was something to behold, and certainly fulfilled Heupel's pregame request for Vols fans to create "a hostile environment" for Ole Miss.

It even led to Rebels quarterback Matt Corral throwing his first interception of the season.

Alas, it wasn't enough to prevent a 31-26 Ole Miss victory.

Still, years from now, whenever this Ole Miss-Tennessee matchup is revisited by Vols fans, the atmosphere is likely to be discussed as much as the game.

For while this may have been a night when the Big Orange Nation gathered to deliver an angry goodbye to Kiffin 12 years after he left Rocky Top, it may ultimately be remembered as the night that fan base welcomed back one of the best game-day atmospheres in all of college football.

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Mark Wiedmer

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

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