Nobody would’ve shed a tear to see Tennessee get an early exit.

Well, check that. Nobody outside of the Volunteer State would’ve shed a tear to see the Vols fail to make the College World Series after entering the field as the brash, polarizing No. 1 overall seed.

If Tennessee had come out and laid an egg in Saturday’s Super Regional survival game, you know the haters would’ve been out in full force, especially after the way things played out on Friday night in Knoxville. Drew Gilbert’s controversial ejection and subsequent suspension meant that the heart and soul of Tony Vitello’s team was unavailable with the season on the line.

But like a heavyweight champ with its back against the ropes, Tennessee bounced back just fine to keep its dream season alive. An 8-run 5th inning with 4 home runs — 2 of which came from Luc Lipcius — was exactly the haymaker the Vols could’ve hoped for after the first 13 innings of the Super Regional was more of a nightmare than a dream.

Besides, who needs a Gilbert bat flip when you can get a Jordan Beck bat spike?

Love or hate Tennessee, give the Vols credit. The masses were in the opposite corner. There were a whole lotta people bleeding blue and gold (and green?) while watching ESPN on Saturday afternoon.

Then again, what else is new? This is who the Vols have been all year. Win it all and it’ll be considered the fuel that the championship engine needed to get from Point A to Point B. Anything short of that and the Vols’ daddy hat-wearing ways will be considered the roadblock.

That’s the reality that Tennessee signed up for. What they didn’t sign up for was a do-or-die game without Gilbert. I suppose that’s what was new.

Was that Game 1 pitch that Gilbert got ejected on low? Sure. Would every umpire on planet earth have ejected him for dropping a couple of F-bombs? Probably not. But at the same time, getting hung up on a strike-1 call down 8-2 in a Super Regional can’t happen, especially when Gilbert had apparently been warned by umpires about comments made at them earlier in the game.

If Tennessee had lost on Saturday without Gilbert, you know what the narrative would’ve been.

“See, this is why you can’t play the game that way.”

Baseball purists everywhere would’ve rejoiced and Tennessee would’ve watched the College World Series from its couch instead of trying to do something that hasn’t been done since 1999. That is, win a national title as the No. 1 overall seed. Of course, if Tennessee is knocked out Sunday, the outside world will conveniently leave out that context and instead say that cockiness denied the program a return trip to Omaha.

Vitello and Co. don’t have time to worry about that. What they do have to worry about is getting another quality start like they did from SEC Pitcher of the Year Chase Dollander. He went 7 innings and surrendered 2 earned runs with 5 scattered hits. More important, he preserved the bullpen instead of putting Tennessee in a tough spot Sunday.

In Tennessee’s ideal world, Gilbert’s return Sunday will spark the Tennessee bats even more and the pitching staff will get a 9-run cushion like they got Saturday. (Gilbert’s ovation will be something fierce). There’s no guarantee of that scenario coming to fruition. As Gilbert’s ejection reminded us, things can change in a hurry, especially with the Vols. Usually, that sudden change comes in the form of a bases-clearing bomb, a bat flip and a wardrobe change … not a potential season-defining ejection.

Sunday’s elimination game won’t come down to how much juice is in Knoxville. To be fair, Tennessee didn’t get to this point simply because of the passion that it plays the game with. Tennessee has the No. 1 offense and the No. 1 ERA in America. You can have less personality than a patch of asphalt and that’ll still play.

Then again, that doesn’t guarantee Tennessee anything, nor does the fact that Vitello’s squad lost 1 series all season. Sunday is once again about survival. Tennessee won’t hear all that outside noise in the friendly confines of Lindsey Nelson Stadium, so it doesn’t make sense to pretend it’ll make or break the Vols’ chances of reaching Omaha.

Tennessee has a long way to go yet in order to be the last one standing. Round 2 on Saturday was a championship-level counterpunch.

But that’ll be an afterthought if Round 3 is anything short of a knockout blow.

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Tennessee sportsbooks are live in the Volunteer state since November 1, 2020. Tennessee was the first SEC state to legalize sports betting.