Heartbreak Behind Them, Tennessee Vols Gear Up For Stretch Run

Ben Garrett@benwgarrettCorrespondent IOctober 24, 2009

TUSCALOOSA, AL - OCTOBER 24:  Cory Reamer #13 of the Alabama Crimson Tide tackles Montario Hardesty #2 of the Tennessee Volunteers at Bryant-Denny Stadium on October 24, 2009 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

It was 1990 all over again in Tuscaloosa Saturday night, as Tennessee dropped a 12-10 decision to Alabama.

The loss, an instant classic in one of the SEC's oldest rivalries, was eerily reminiscent of the 1990 Third Saturday showdown in Knoxville, when the Crimson Tide blocked a field goal attempt that would have won it for the Vols. It left Tennessee fans throughout the Volunteer State proclaiming, "We're this close!" (Said while holding thumb and forefinger an inch apart for illustration).

The Vols might be closer than they think.

In fact, the Vols might have closed the door on the 2009 loss column when they walked out of Bryant-Denny Stadium Saturday night.

As the Lane Kiffin era debuted in Knoxville last month, the optimistic sector of the Vol Nation predicted an 8-4 season for Tennessee. Conventional wisdom said that the Vols would lose to Florida, Georgia, Alabama and Ole Miss. After the Vols dropped a 19-15 decision to UCLA, the reasonable sector of the Vol Nation quickly shifted expectations downward. Conventional wisdom said that the Vols would struggle to reach the bowl eligibility plateau of .500.

Coming off a 12-10 loss to Alabama in which the Vols outnumbered the Tide in every category except the one displayed on the scoreboard, an 8-4 season seems entirely within the Vols' reach.

Predicting a 5-0 finish for Tennessee might seem a bit brash, considering the Vols are 3-4 and have a spooky South Carolina defense set to visit Neyland Stadium on Halloween night, not to mention a trip to Oxford still on the schedule.

But with less than two touchdowns separating Tennessee from a pair of road upsets of top-ranked opponents, the Vols are probably the best 3-4 team in college football. In fact, the ever-improving Tennessee team may be one of the top 25 or 30 teams in the country.

Consider their résumé.

Tennessee has lost its four games by a combined 20 points. Against two No. 1 teams, the Vols have lost by a combined 12 points.

If ifs and buts were candy and nuts, every football team in the land would have a merry Christmas, but consider this: Tennessee out-gained Alabama 341 to 256 in total offense (including 265 to 120 through the air). The Vols gained 20 first downs to Alabama's 16. And UT had the ball 32:36, compared to 27:24 for Alabama. They say it's better to be lucky than good, and on this day, luck was the biggest thing going for Alabama.

The Vols' defense, under Kiffin the elder, is making a case as the best in the SEC. Tennessee has not given up an offensive touchdown in over eight quarters of play, against Georgia and Alabama.

Quarterback Jonathan Crompton was much maligned after a three-interception performance against UCLA, but seemed to turn it around beginning with a fourth quarter rally that came up short against Auburn. After a 310-yard, four-touchdown performance against Georgia, Crompton didn't light up the stat sheet against Alabama, but did enough to put his offense in position to win the game. Meanwhile, Montario Hardesty continues to make his case as the best running back in the SEC, and the Vols' patched-up offensive line is still improving, after holding its own after a bigger and better 'Bama defensive front.

The route to bowl eligibility might be charted a little differently than many in orange anticipated as the season began. Few in Knoxville expected a loss to UCLA in what was supposed to be a revenge game for Tennessee's 2008 overtime loss in Pasadena. But few also expected Tennessee to be in position to steal a win in Oxford. Given the turnaround of Crompton, the continued dominance of the Vols' defense and the average play of Ole Miss, that suddenly seems possible.

Find a way to put up points against Steve Spurrier's Gamecocks, and shut down Jevan Snead and the Rebels, and the remaining three games--Memphis, Vanderbilt and Kentucky--should take care of themselves.

Home losses to UCLA and Auburn weren't on the agenda when the season began, but by most estimates of success, an 8-4 campaign to kick off the new era in Knoxville would measure up.