November 15, 2010
As little as they had to get excited about over the course of a 2-6 start, Tennessee fans still couldn't quite bring themselves to get worked up last week over true freshman Tyler Bray's 325-yard, five-touchdown effort in his first start at Memphis: It's Memphis, and a conspicuously bad version of Memphis at that. Follow that up with a 324-yard, three-touchdown barrage in a 52-14 rout of an actual SEC defense, though, and all bets are off.
So, yes, that defense was Ole Miss, and a conspicuously bad version of Ole Miss at that: The Rebels came into the weekend ranked last in the SEC in scoring defense, next-to-last in pass efficiency D and 10th in yards allowed, and proceeded to live down to all of those numbers and then some in Neyland Stadium. But as of three weeks ago, the Tennessee offense was right down there with them – after a 41-10 shellacking at the hands of Alabama, the Vols had been held to 17 points or less in four straight SEC losses, three of them by double digits. Attrition to an already thin front left them with one of the greenest offensive lines in the country.
Excluding the gimme opener against UT-Martin, they'd only topped 30 once, and needed double overtime to do it after scoring just 21 in regulation against UAB. By just amount any measure, it ranked as one of the two or three most impotent attacks in the conference, barely capable of putting up 50 points against air.
Bray had been an integral part of that streak of futility in regular relief of starter Matt Simms, but his two touchdown passes to briefly pull the Vols even at 24 in the second half at South Carolina may have been the first jolt to the passing game all season. That earned him the start at Memphis, which earned him a second start against Ole Miss, which has beleaguered fans tentatively drinking the Dool-Aid about the team's trajectory down the stretch.
That's not only because Bray has thrown for 807 yards and 10 touchdowns over the last 10 quarters and is showing signs of becoming something slightly better than the second coming of Erik Ainge. The starting lineup for Saturday's outburst included four other freshmen on offense, three of them on the line. The other, receiver Justin Hunter, opened the scoring with an 80-yard catch-and-run on the Vols' first snap of the game and out-leapt double coverage for another touchdown in the second quarter, giving him five scores for the year on just 14 catches – eight of which have covered at least 25 yards. Along with hyped classmate Da'Rick Rogers, Hunter gives Bray two of the SEC's most terrifying targets for the next two years, at least. Junior running back Tauren Poole is on his way to 1,000 yards after delivering his sixth 100-yard game of the season against the Rebels, tying him with Cam Newton for most in the conference.
At 4-6, Tennessee is two wins from bowl eligibility with perennial whipping boys Vanderbilt and Kentucky to close out the season. If it gets there, it will be 6-6 with four straight wins, 15 additional practices and a winnable bowl game to take into the offseason, with a core of young talent that appears capable of actually competing with the Vols' old rivals at the top of the league. That's not much by their usual standards. But after two coaching changes in two years, an offseason filled with attrition and scandal and two months of steady on-field disaster, at least it's a way out of the mineshaft.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.