It’s been a season where everything for Tennessee has gone right. The 23-game winning streak? Check. Essentially unchallenged rise to No. 1? Oh yeah. Easy SEC Tournament title? Surely. Sweep through the regional round? Yep. Easy Super Regional win? Not so much.

For only the 8th time all season, Tennessee found itself on the short end of a game. And not just any game. As the opener of UT’s Super Regional with Notre Dame, the loss puts UT with its back at least in close proximity to the wall. Only a pair of wins over the same Notre Dame squad can keep Tennessee’s dream season alive.

And somewhere in the bowels of Lindsey Nelson Stadium, coach Tony Vitello might be …  well … a little bit ecstatic. In the same way that omelets aren’t made without breaking a few eggs, championships aren’t won without at least a little adversity. Almost everything UT has touched this season has turned to gold. If it wasn’t the ton of homers, it was the 105 mile-per-hour heat from reliever Ben Joyce or having the SEC’s top 3 ERA leaders. Even what seemed like a flaw — take the lengthy loss of presumed pitching ace Blade Tidwell early in the season — became a strength. Not having Tidwell just allowed the Vols to develop their young aces and then drop the veteran into the rotation late in the SEC season.

But Friday night was very different. First, Tidwell was very, very human. Second, the Notre Dame offense that figured to be outmatched against UT (they scored 11 runs in their 3 regional games) wasn’t outmatched at all. The Fighting Irish had just 68 homers all season, not even half of UT’s total. But Friday, they hit 4 in the first 4 innings. UT found itself training 8-1 in the top of the 4th inning in Knoxville.

But that wasn’t all. In the 5th inning, UT outfielder Drew Gilbert criticized a called strike (apparently telling the home plate umpire that it was “a (expletive) terrible call”) and was ejected from the game. (Remember, Gilbert was hit by a pitch in the 1st inning, only to have that same plate umpire say he leaned into a strike and thus kept him at the plate in an at-bat in which he eventually grounded out.) After Gilbert’s ejection, pitching coach Frank Anderson sprang out of the UT dugout and was also granted an early departure. Both will be suspended for Saturday’s must-win Game 2.

The Vols didn’t exactly take a nap for the remainder of Friday’s game, even down 7 runs and without Gilbert. UT drew within 8-6 in the 9th inning, but couldn’t pull any closer. UT left 8 runners on base and went 1-for-10 with runners in scoring position.

And now, the Vols find themselves dealing with actual adversity. Down a game in the best-of-3 series, without Gilbert for Game 2, the haters (and UT has picked up a few) are smelling Vols blood in the water.

But here’s the rub. Adversity doesn’t have to result in defeat. There are plenty of recent examples. A year ago in the Super Regional round, NC State faced No. 1 Arkansas, or as we could call them, last year’s version of Tennessee (a clear consensus No. 1 with few if any weaknesses). After a 21-2 drubbing in Game 1, the Wolfpack could have hung their heads and congratulated each other on a nice season. Instead, they came back to win the series and claim the bid to Omaha over a heartbroken Arkansas squad.

Or consider Mississippi State, which dropped an 8-2 decision to Vanderbilt in Game 1 of last year’s College World Series finals. With the ‘Dores all but crowned as champions, the Bulldogs went back to work, blasted back with a 13-2 win in Game 2, and then smoked Vandy 9-0 in Game 3 to take home the title.

There was never really a question of Tennessee waltzing to the title without a down moment. So yes, the down moment came Friday. The good news for the Vols is they still have Chase Dollander, Chase Burns, Drew Beam, etc, ready on the mound. Even without Gilbert, their biggest motivator, they have a power-heavy offense that nobody wants to face. So after an ugly couple of innings on Friday, some people may have given up on Tennessee.

It’s time for the Vols to determine if they’ll dig deep and use that motivational fuel to start a bonfire of a comeback against Notre Dame … or if we’ll remember UT was one of the great “what might have been stories” of SEC baseball.

But given what UT has already shown in the 2022 season, expecting the motivational fuel is probably a wise move.

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Tennessee sports betting officially launched on November 1, 2020. Tennessee was the first SEC state to legalize sports betting.