Tennessee surging: But can Volunteers beat Texas A&M, Alabama?

Published 7:05 am Monday, October 3, 2016

ATHENS, Ga. (AP) — Tennessee might be the most resilient team in college football.

Hard to imagine the Volunteers getting rattled by their next two games, no matter how daunting they might seem.

Tennessee is on quite a high after one of the most improbable wins in school history Saturday . After rallying from a 17-0 deficit, and then giving up what looked to be the winning touchdown with 10 seconds remaining, Tennessee pulled off a 43-yard Hail Mary on the final play to beat Georgia 34-31.

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Bring on Texas A&M and Alabama.

“Just finding ways to win football games,” said coach Butch Jones, who collapsed to his knees in tears after the latest comeback. “What can I say?”

The Volunteers (5-0, 2-0 Southeastern Conference) moved up two spots in The Associated Press rankings to No. 9, having matched their best start since the 1998 national championship team.

It will be quite a challenge to keep that going.

Tennessee heads to College Station next weekend to face the Aggies, before returning home to meet the top-ranked Crimson Tide on Oct. 15.

But it’s clear that Jones has turned things around on Rocky Top after nearly a decade of misery.

The Vols have won 11 straight over the last two years, which is the second-longest active streak in the NCAA’s top division, surpassed only by Alabama’s 17-game run.

“We have the most competitive team in the nation, I feel like,” said quarterback Joshua Dobbs, who launched the winning pass to Jauan Jennings. “We find ways to win, fight it out. … There’s no quit in this team. Everyone is hungry and that’s the type of attitude you have to have to be successful.”

Tennessee has trailed by double digits in four of its five games, and come back to win all of them. The Vols snapped an 11-game losing streak against Florida, rallying from a 21-3 deficit with five touchdowns in the second half. They pulled off a miracle between the hedges, completing a sweep of the teams that figured to be their biggest challengers in the SEC East.

This is quite a change from a year ago, when Tennessee squandered leads in all four of its losses.

These Vols aren’t interested in harping on the past.

“They’re resilient. They understand,” Jones said of his players. “You don’t win a game like that unless you have character.”

This was a finish that will live on as long as football is played at Tennessee.

A day later, the twists and turns that occurred over the final 3 minutes were still hard to fathom:

— Tennessee went ahead for the first time all game when Derek Barnett jarred the ball loose from Georgia’s freshman quarterback, Jacob Eason, as he dropped back to pass in the end zone. Corey Vereen recovered the fumble for a touchdown.

— The Vols appeared to seal the victory when Mailk Foreman picked off Eason’s pass just three plays later. But Georgia called a couple timeouts, forced a three-and-out and got the ball back at its own 19 with just 1:07 remaining.

— Eason completed three straight passes to get his team to the Tennessee 42, before the Bulldogs called their final timeout to avoid a 10-second runoff after a false start penalty. Eason spotted another freshman, Riley Ridley, streaking down the left sideline and threw a pass that hit him in stride behind two defenders for what everyone assumed was the winning score.

— Tennessee caught a break when Georgia was penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct during the raucous celebration, forcing the Bulldogs to kick off from their own 20. Evan Berry returned it 20 yards to the Georgia 43, giving Dobbs a chance to throw a desperation pass. The 6-foot-3 Jennings leaped above everyone else in the scrum and rather easily brought the ball down as he fell to his back.

The Vols never doubted that they’d somehow find a way to win, right to the very end.

“They punched us left and right, but no one said it was over,” defensive back Todd Kelly Jr. said.

Sounds like a trait that will come in handy over the next two weeks.