Two weeks ago, Jeremy Pruitt got emotional after watching Tennessee hang tough with Georgia on the road. The Vols’ first-year coach praised his team’s fight, which wasn’t in question in its toughest game of the season. It might have looked like Pruitt was celebrating a moral victory.

On Saturday, Pruitt and the Vols celebrated an actual victory. And oh, how massive it was.

Fiery Sweet Wing Sauce
Aged cayenne peppers bring the heat, while molasses and honey inject the sweet into our Fiery Sweet Wing Sauce. For a dash of daring deliciousness, give it a shot.

Tennessee came into Saturday as a 16-point underdog on the road against a ranked team. That’s par for the course for a team that hadn’t won an SEC game since 2016. The conversation was about if Tennessee was going to win an SEC game in 2018. Surely few, if any, thought it would come at a place where the Vols were winless in the 21st century.

The national headlines will be about the free-fall of Gus Malzahn and why Jarrett Stidham has regressed so much in his second year of this offense. It was a horrendous performance for a team that looked like a Playoff contender after beating Washington in the season opener.

But the question “did Auburn lose it or did Tennessee win it” is useless. Don’t let Auburn’s demise take away from an improbable feat.

Saturday was monumental in so many ways for Tennessee.

Credit: John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

Tennessee fans hoped that with Pruitt at the controls, they’d at least have a team capable of making defensive adjustments and not getting steamrolled in SEC play. On Saturday, we saw exactly that.

In a game that Tennessee trailed 17-13, it didn’t allow a point for the next 32 minutes (Auburn made it a 6-point game in the final 37 seconds). The Vols took away the Auburn ground game that was picking up chunks of yardage early. Pruitt adjusted. Malzahn didn’t. As a result, a program that ranked 126 of 130 FBS teams against the run last year continued Auburn’s running game woes.

But the beauty of Saturday’s effort was that it wasn’t just a 14-10 game in which Pruitt’s defense woke up. Tyson Helton’s offense came alive. The guy Pruitt and the Vols paid 7 figures to rebuild an anemic offense looked like he was worth every penny Saturday.

A lot of that credit goes to Jarrett Guarantano, the same quarterback who some fans were calling for to be benched in favor of Keller Chryst during the bye week.

All Guarantano did was play the game of his life.

Against an Auburn defense that ranked first in the SEC against the pass, Guarantano finished with a career-high 328 passing yards and 2 touchdown passes. The offense that struggled with home-run plays looked like it was swinging for the fences all afternoon.

Between Josh Palmer, Jauan Jennings, Marquez Callaway and Ty Chandler, Tennessee’s receivers looked like some of the nation’s best on Saturday:

It was the offensive performance that Vols fans had been waiting for following a start to SEC play that included 6 giveaways against Florida and a 12-point performance against Georgia.

Shoot, this was a Tennessee team that hadn’t had 30 points in an SEC game since 2016. And yeah, part of that was the fact that Tennessee had a defensive touchdown on one of the more bizarre scoop and scores you’ll ever see.

But finally, the Vols put it all together.

The program that had seemingly looked like a mess for the past 13 months looked like it actually had things figured out. For once, Tennessee wasn’t the butt of the joke. It forced Auburn into that dreaded role.

Did Saturday guarantee that Tennessee is back to looking like that on a weekly basis? Of course not. I mean, Alabama is coming to town next week. Let’s be real.

But after the way 2018 started, Vols fans had to wonder how long it would take to get a Saturday like the one they had at Jordan-Hare Stadium. That’s a win that Tennessee fans will remember for a long time, regardless of how the rest of 2018 plays out for both the Vols and Tigers.

The first step is complete in Year 1 of the Pruitt era. Emotional, it was.

Something tells me it was an even better emotion than the one Pruitt experienced 2 weeks ago.