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What Tennessee Needs to Do To Get Back on Track vs. Kentucky

(Photo by Charles Mitchell/Icon Sportswire)

Tennessee fell short of an upset against Alabama last Saturday. While the loss was expected, the game itself came as a surprise.

Many expected the Vols to be on the short end of a blowout in Tuscaloosa. And while Tennessee did get the loss, it managed to challenge one of the nation’s best teams in a tough road environment.

The Vols held their first lead over Alabama since 2011 when they went ahead 14-13 in the fourth quarter before the Tide answered like any great team would. Let’s put that in perspective, Tennessee hasn’t held a lead, let alone challenged Alabama since 2011 — a game it lost 37-6.

Keep in mind, I hate “moral victories,” especially as a Tennessee alum who’s been spoon-fed far too many in three coaching tenures since Phillip Fulmer’s departure. But this was the closest thing to an acceptable loss I’ve seen during the Vols’ nearly decade-long rebuilding project.

This didn’t feel like the Oklahoma or Florida losses. Sure, it was against tough competition and a team that Tennessee hadn’t defeated in years. But it was a valiant effort and a fourth quarter push, instead of a choke job willed by coaching lapses and conservative play calling.

So does Tennessee need to make adjustments moving forward? Yes, but not as many as you’d think.

If you’re optimistic about the Alabama game, you acknowledge that it was a solid effort. It also followed the Vols’ biggest win of the season, a 38-31 rally against Georgia — as well as a bye the following week.

I’ve seen a better Tennessee team in those two games than any other game in 2015. The team showed balance, grit and determination to compete with an opponent many considered superior.

Butch Jones and his staff managed those games better than any previous matchups, especially in the fourth quarter. And most importantly, Josh Dobbs was allowed to throw the football, yet still made enough plays with his legs to be a true dual-threat quarterback.

The Vols defense — which is criminally underrated due to its offense’s (at times) lack of ability to get off the field — also managed to step up in both contests. This is a team that has Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Cam Sutton and Derek Barnett, three players who should be among the best in the SEC at their respective positions.

Say what you will, but Tennessee has looked its best during its last two games in both a winning and losing effort. And yes, even with the Alabama loss, the Vols should be 6-1 had they avoided several double-digit collapses.

But again, this isn’t the same team that stumbled through a 2-3 record before facing Georgia. Tennessee looked like the team many expected to contend as a dark horse in the SEC East during preseason.

The Vols should be favored in every remaining regular season game, which would give them an 8-4 record and secure their second consecutive bowl game appearance. That will be enough to secure Butch Jones’ job — which seemed impossible four weeks ago — and continue to build optimism as the roster gains more experience entering the 2016 season.

Tennessee shouldn’t need to make many adjustments against an improved, but fortunate Kentucky team that has benefited from a lackluster schedule. The Vols should earn a victory on Saturday before ending their season against the likes of North Texas and the SEC’s bottom three teams: South Carolina, Missouri and Vanderbilt.

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