Rexrode: There's a championship trait in these erratic Vols

Joe Rexrode
The Tennessean
Tennessee head coach Butch Jones hugs his son Alex Jones (39) after the win against Florida on Saturday, September 24, 2016.

KNOXVILLE — The flag was for a delay of game on Tennessee, but you could barely hear the referee announce it amid the building noise at Neyland Stadium.

Freshman tight end Devante Brooks stood up on the Tennessee bench and screamed toward the fans behind it: “Who cares? We just beat Florida! Yeaaaaaahhhhhh!!!”

As the Vols prepared to take the final snap of the 38-28 win over Florida — breaking an 11-game losing streak to the Gators, overcoming a 21-0 deficit, atoning for a hideous first half — senior cornerback Cam Sutton walked on crutches to fellow defenders Todd Kelly Jr., Emmanuel Moseley and Dillon Bates. They group-hugged as the final score became official, the build of noise became an explosion, and then the celebration headed for the south end zone.

Butch Jones was in there. So were his assistants and players, after a couple threw sarcastic Gator chomps toward the smattering of Florida fans. In that mass of humanity, with about 100,000 belting out “Rocky Top” in unison, you had to wonder how a place like this could ever house a substandard football program.

It doesn’t anymore. It houses the SEC East favorite, a 4-0 team that is as erratic in performance as they come, but not in approach.

That’s the championship asset that revealed itself Saturday in front of 102,455 on the Tennessee River, brought to life by the second-half brilliance of quarterback Joshua Dobbs and defensive end Derek Barnett.

“I hope you guys understand the resolve and the resiliency of this football team,” Jones said after the game in a semi-scolding of local media, who joined with the rest of Twitter to fire him 3,548 times at halftime.

“We are building something special here with character and competitiveness,” Jones said. “If you don’t have character in your football program, (a comeback like) that does not happen.”


It’s still completely plausible that the Vols could lose the next three, at Georgia, at Texas A&M and at home vs. Alabama, to fall out of the race and face hard questions. There were many after a first 30 minutes of football that Dobbs joked was not played by the Vols but by “the ghosts of Team 120.”

And then there were answers, delivered with such authority that it’s not outrageous to think the Vols could win three of these four and wind up in Atlanta on Dec. 3, playing for something big.

Playing poorly and with so much emotion it’s a detriment? Turn it to focused passion.

Hearing your fans booing you as you leave the field at the break? Get them back on your side.

Getting gouged by backup quarterback Austin Appleby and the Gators in the first half, giving up 300 total yards? Hold them to 8 yards in the third quarter and three-and-outs on five of their first six possessions in the second half — and pick Appleby off on the sixth.

Dropping passes left and right? Start making tough catches, as tight end Ethan Wolf did to make it 21-17.

Guilty of a couple bad picks? Keep throwing — 235 of Dobbs’ 319 yards and all four of his passing touchdowns came in the second half.

Missing a defensive star (Sutton) and barely getting anything out of another (banged-up Jalen Reeves-Maybin)? Turn the third one loose and watch Barnett go sack, tackle for loss, sack in a span of four plays to change the game.

Sick of hearing about and seeing replays of all the clutch Florida plays over the years that built this winning streak to 11? Make one of your own.

That’s what Jauan Jennings did early in the fourth. Dobbs put it up, noted Florida trash talker Jalen Tabor slipped and fell, and then it was up to Jennings to make a memory.

The ball hit him in stride at the Florida 42, near the sideline, but then it popped up into the air. He gathered it with his right hand at the 36, somehow stayed inbounds and sprinted for the touchdown that would hold up as the winner.

“I knew this football team was not going to be denied,” Jones said.

Tired of the yapping? Give some back. Jones made a “duck pulling a truck” joke in the postgame CBS interview, a nod to Florida’s Quincy Wilson and his strange prediction of victory earlier in the week.

Asked if the Vols made the Gators quit, Barnett said: “Yeah, yessir, we did.”

“I just kept looking at their body language on the sideline, it was bad,” Barnett said of the Gators in the second half. “I think they were focused on talking too much and not football, and it showed in the end.”

In the end, the Gators were out of sight. “Rocky Top” turned to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” on the stadium sound system, and Jones put his arm around the injured Sutton and slowly walked him back to the locker room.

About 100,000 people were still there, standing and singing. Been waiting a long time for something like this? Soak it up.

Follow Joe Rexrode on Twitter @joerexrode.