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Rocky Top Comes Out on Top

By Jim Johnson
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The right guys are in place to return Tennessee to its former heights.

In the preseason I predicted that Tennessee would go winless in conference play for the second consecutive season. So this is what it’s like to be wrong, huh?

The pick made sense in the moment. They ranked 93rd in the FBS in returning production on offense, 117th on defense, and 113th overall. They had a first time head coach. The program, as a whole, from the top down was in the midst of a near total overhaul.

In hindsight, maybe losing and/or getting rid of the better part of the personnel that oversaw the aforementioned O-fer in the SEC wasn’t such a bad thing after all.

It wasn’t often pretty during the first half of the season. Resounding victories over UTEP and ETSU did little to assuage the underlying concerns and obvious takeaways from multiple score losses at the hands of West Virginia, Florida, and Georgia. The frank reality is that Tennessee is just not as talented as those three teams right now. Honestly, they’re one of the least talented teams in the league as currently constituted. Jeremy Pruitt and company are doing their best to remedy that on the recruiting trail right now, but for the time being it’s just a fact.

However, Auburn is included in that group of teams that look better than Tennessee on paper. All that got them was a loss and an even angrier fan base.

This has been building, bubbling under the surface for weeks. Even in defeat, there have been steady signs of improvement in Knoxville. As difficult as it may be, it’s important that fans keep the talent deficiencies in perspective whilst evaluating this team going forward. Beating Auburn is exciting and the culmination of weeks of and months of hard work, but is hardly indicative of an immediate turnaround.

Even a winning record in the five remaining conference games is a big ask. Bowl eligibility, on the other hand, feels within reach. That alone should, realistically, constitute a successful debut campaign for Pruitt.

Longterm, the future is much brighter. Based on what this team has displayed so far, while the players are still a couple of recruiting cycles away from being able to consistently compete with the top flight teams in college football’s toughest conference, the coaching staff to do just that is already in place.

People talk about the importance of “Jimmy’s and Joe’s” relative to “X’s and O’s”. I’ve long believed that good defense is more heavily reliant on the latter -- maybe 60-40, even 70-30, over the former. Effective offense, conversely, is more of a balanced proposition. A well designed and properly executed offense is far less hamstrung by the personnel than an outclassed, overmatched defense.

Tennessee’s defense has, by and large, been outclassed and overmatched. Holding Auburn’s bafflingly mismanaged offense to 24 was hardly an achievement. There’s still a lot of work to do on that side of the ball, but, again, Pruitt and defensive coordinator Kevin Sherrer’s capabilities are limited.

The offense, though, despite the lack of elite playmakers at the skill positions, has been good. Not great, at least not yet, but indisputably good. All things considered, this group might be operating at its full potential.

Jarrett Guarantano just played the best game of his career against an Auburn defense that was ranked first in the nation in S&P+ going into the matchup. The offensive line was bullied all day long, and the run game was nonexistent, but Tyson Helton called a brilliant game and his sophomore signal caller handled the environment, pressure from Auburn’s vaunted front seven, and the Tigers’ aggressive secondary like a seasoned vet.

His 181 passer rating was the second best of his career, two points beneath that of which he posted against UTEP in week three. Suffice it to say, Auburn ain’t UTEP.

That, along with continued excellence on special teams, a few forced turnovers, a defensive score, and winning the field position battle, the Volunteers whipped up the perfect upset recipe.

Savor it, Tennessee. The rest of the season will have its ups and downs, but the right guys are in place to return Rocky Top to the top.

Jim Johnson - Editor of Southern Pigskin, Producer of "Three & Out", and host of "Explosive Recruiting" on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. E-mail: Twitter: @JimJohnsonSP