Missouri head coach Butch Jones
You have to crawl before you walk, and Tennessee head coach Butch Jones has found that out the hard way in his first season in Knoxville.
After starting the season with wins over Austin Peay and Western Kentucky, the Vols went to Oregon and got smoked by Ducks 59-14 -- and it wasn't even that close.
In a panic move, Jones switched quarterbacks and started redshirt freshman Nathan Peterman in place of Justin Worley the next week in the SEC opener on the road at Florida—which had the best defense in the SEC at the time.
The result was one of the ugliest offensive games the SEC has seen in quite some time, and Worley was re-inserted in the second half after Peterman got hurt.
But a funny thing happened over the last month: Tennessee got pretty good.
The defense had to hang on at home against South Alabama, but the Vols dug out of a 17-3 hole versus Georgia to march down the field and take a lead on Georgia with less than two minutes to go. Had Alton "Pig" Howard held on to the ball diving into the end zone for a split-second longer in overtime, the Vols may have been able to spring the upset.
Jones' signature win had to wait two weeks, but when he got it, he did it in impressive fashion.
In a game in which South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney finally made his presence felt, the Vols got the last laugh, building a 17-7 halftime lead and then rallying for two, fourth-quarter field goals—including the game-winning 19-yarder from Michael Palardy as time expired—to upend the Gamecocks 23-21, ending the national title hopes for Steve Spurrier.
Yes, Gamecocks quarterback Connor Shaw left with an injury, but that wasn't the reason the Vols sprung the upset. The Vols brought pressure, mixed coverages and had Shaw confused before he left. He completed only 33 percent of his passes, and threw one interception—his first of the season—and was sacked four times.
"We game-planned pretty well," linebacker A.J. Johnson said in quotes released by the university. "We game-planned through the practice. Everything we game-planned for they ran it in the game. We were ready for it. That was the big key—just executing and getting the job down."
It was the defensive performance the Vols have been waiting for.
They've forced 17 turnovers on the season, matching their total for 2012. The offense continues to evolve with Worley at the helm, and the defense is making sure it gets in position to succeed.
Will Tennessee make a bowl game in 2013?
It's a transition year on Rocky Top, and the transition appears to have taken place. Now with a signature win under his belt, Jones has the program headed in the right direction.
There'll be more bumps along the way—including this weekend's matchup in Tuscaloosa—but the players have already shown a tremendous amount of resiliency in seven games under Jones.
That's going to help this team for this season, and set the tone for the new crop of Vols that sign as part of the class of 2014. That class, according to 247Sports.com, is fourth in the country.
Tennessee has games against Alabama, Missouri, Auburn, Vanderbilt and Kentucky remaining. Two more wins to become bowl eligible isn't a stretch, and getting those bowl practices on top of what should be a stellar recruiting class would be beneficial to Jones' program.
The future is bright on Rocky Top.