Vols live up to hype as Battle at Bristol 'champions' but next step matters most
Tennessee took advantage of Virginia Tech's miscues Saturday, but they have a lot of winning left to do
BRISTOL, Tennessee -- Not even two weeks into September, at a NASCAR race track in remote East Tennessee, they shot off confetti cannons for the winner of a college football game.
More than that, each Tennessee player received a souvenir T-shirt and hat that labeled them "Battle at Bristol Champions." There was also a massive trophy.
Yes, Tennessee -- masters of not living up to the hype -- had finally overachieved. Their competition Saturday was just as much the flag, the fireworks and the requisite flyover.
But all of that paled in comparison to the primary task of beating a (somewhat) quality opponent. The No. 17 Vols overwhelmed Virginia Tech 45-24 in an awesome setting and all that but ... champions? In Week 2?
"A little over the top...," Tennessee coach Butch Jones said of the postgame setting. "But I want them to enjoy it and then we'll go back tomorrow ... We've got some work to do."
These Vols still face the long-term task of earning some swag that actually means something three months from now, say, at in SEC Championship Game.
It's been 18 years since Tennessee won the nation's best conference, but you take your encouragement where you can get it. The Vols' eight-game winning streak is now their longest since 1999.
Tennessee, a modest 2-0, can take that encouragement from the game, not necessarily its start. Remember, in Tennessee this game pretty much had to result in a blowout to soothe the psyche of that near loss to Appalachian State in Week 1.
The Bristol Motor Speedway crowd of 156,990 turned out to be the largest in college football history. Tennessee's start initially made it another Groundhog Day. Contemplating the early 14-0 hole his team fell into, Tennessee chancellor Jimmy Cheek summed up the angst.
"Here we go again," Cheek said.
Maybe Vols teams of the past (see: 2015) would have folded in this setting. When Virginia Tech's Travon McMillian busted around the end for a 69-yard scoring run less than 13 minutes into the game, you could have heard a Rocky Top jaw drop.
Instead, near the end of the first quarter, Hokies' quarterback Jerod Evans was stripped of the ball by teammate C.J. Carroll, who was motioning across the formation. Tennessee safety Micah Abernathy recovered and the roll was on.
That was the first of five fumbles lost by the Hokies -- more than in any game during Frank Beamer's 29 years as coach. Three led to Tennessee touchdowns. Let the record show that, overall, the Vols made progress. Whether they make a splash will be decided months from now.
So what do you call Saturday night?
"I call it a Dub," as in a W, said receiver Jauan Jennings.
And little more. Tennessee linebacker Darrin Kirkland was carted off in the third quarter with ankle injury. Virginia Tech came into the game sporting only nine seniors. Evans, a juco transfer, was playing in front of crowds less of less than 1,000 last year at Trinity Valley in Texas.
It's not fair to say Tennessee quarterback Josh Dobbs established himself. That's because he spent parts of four seasons doing just that. But he showed a calm that was missing in the opener.
Dobbs wasn't leaping into the end zone without the ball as he was against Appalachian State. He was running -- or told to run -- more often (14 times for 106 yards). There was no ambiguity to his game.
Dobbs' second of three touchdown passes went to Josh Malone, who shrugged off a defender, to tie it 14-14 not even five minutes into the second quarter.
By midway through the third quarter, the Vols had scored 31 unanswered. The question became, why can't they do this all the time?
Dobbs accounted for five touchdowns. Abernathy set a school record recovering three of those fumbles. They did not shrink before a crowd that was easily 70 percent Vols fans.
"The reality hit our players [Friday] when we came through with all the campers and trailers," Jones said. "I don't know if you could really ever prepare for something like this until you get here. ... We have to learn how to have consistency for 60 minutes and not have lulls."
We came here to learn about an (at times) bumblin', fumblin', underachieving Tennessee. We left with the most patriotic feeling since Francis Scott Key took pen to paper.
There was the requisite flyover. Fans chanted, "USA," on the eve of the 15th anniversary of 9/11. Lee Greenwood came out at halftime and sang that, once again, he is proud to be an American.
Defensive back Malik Foreman, receiver Latrell Williams, Jennings and Dobbs posed for a picture with one of the T-champion shirts. Three players who came into the interview room lugged their souvenir locker stools with them.
"It's not a bowl game," one Virginia Tech official said of the "championship" gear. "You've still got to play your conference. I thought it was a bit much."
And it probably was. But as Dobbs reminded, "We're right where we want to be."
On this Saturday, in the second week of September, that would be in remote East Tennessee at a super speedway -- undefeated.
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