The Tennessee Volunteers earned the biggest win of the Butch Jones Era on Saturday, when the Vols upset the 11th-ranked South Carolina Gamecocks, 23-21. Kicker Michael Palardy kicked a 19-yard field goal as time expired, lifting the Vols to the upset victory.
It was nearly the second victory in a row over a Top 25 opponent for the Vols. The previous week, Tennessee had the Georgia Bulldogs down late in the game, but could not put them away, losing 34-31 in overtime.
From the last two games, it’s clear that the Volunteers are buying into Jones and his system. In fact, Tennessee has come a long way since a 59-14 blowout at the hands of the Oregon Ducks in week three. Since that game, the Vols are 2-1, including those tight contests with Georgia and South Carolina.
But there is little time for celebrating or reflecting in Knoxville. This weekend, Tennessee faces a road trip to face the nation’s top-ranked team, the Alabama Crimson Tide in the annual rivalry game.
It doesn’t seem very likely that Tennessee could go to Tuscaloosa and pull off a win. But if someone had said that the Vols would beat South Carolina, even three weeks ago, that wouldn’t have seemed likely, either.
Perhaps the key to the turnaround has been the play of running back Rajion Neal. In the last three games, Neal has rushed for 394 yards, raising his season average to 99 yards per game, which is 26th in the country. Having an effective rushing attack has taken a lot of pressure away from quarterback Justin Worley, and it has shown. Worley has not thrown an interception in his last two games, after throwing six in his first five games.
It will take a monumental effort for the Vols to win at Alabama this weekend. But if Jones can get his team to keep improving, perhaps this rivalry can return to one of the nation’s best very soon.
Tim Letcher is a contributing writer for RantSports.com and a member of the Football Writers Association of America. Follow him on Twitter @TimLetcher , on Facebook or add him to your network on Google.