Tennessee was clearly exposed against Ole Miss. That doesn’t mean the Vols aren’t on the right track. As for Tennessee’s fan behavior, let’s address that first.

The Vols lost to Ole Miss 31-26 in a game that had more pregame hype than a Las Vegas heavyweight title fight. It ended up being about as civilized as one as Neyland Stadium seemed poised to become the scene of a riot.

The game ultimately came down to a questionable spot that went against the Vols and gave Ole Miss the ball. Despite having 3 timeouts and enough time on the clock, some in the crowd thought it would be wise to throw objects onto the field. Ole Miss head coach Lane Kiffin was apparently hit with a golf ball as the game was held up for 20 minutes. Tennessee’s cheerleaders, the dance squad and the band departed early to avoid being struck. Eventually, hundreds — if not thousands — of people left the game. More were moved back from the field in hopes that they were out of throwing distance from the game’s participants.

At one point, it even seemed as if the officials might end the game prematurely. That didn’t happen. The Vols had one last possession, which ended short of a game-winning touchdown at the Ole Miss 8-yard line. Instead of a valiant effort that fell just short against a ranked team, this game will be remembered for some idiotic fans who felt the need to impose their will on the event.

As for the actual game, it was set up nicely for a UT upset. Tennessee was coming off 2 lopsided wins against SEC opponents. The Vols looked poised for a statement win. Ole Miss looked like the perfect potential victim, especially with Kiffin at the helm. Neither ended up being the case.

Every so often, Tennessee fans force themselves to believe that the Vols are going to break through despite a decade of frustration. The fans get excited. They show up to Neyland Stadium in droves — which isn’t a given nowadays. Then, those fans get let down. It’s just the same ol’ Vols, right? I don’t think so. That’s part of what makes the fan reaction so bush league. This team and this coaching staff are poised for success.

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

The Ole Miss game was a long, slow grind in which the Vols just couldn’t get the ball moving until the second half. Keep in mind that UT was facing the 13th-ranked passing defense in the SEC. In case you weren’t keeping count, there are only 14 teams in the SEC (well, until Oklahoma and Texas get here, anyway). That means Ole Miss’ pass defense was really bad when it traveled to Knoxville. Still, UT’s highly rated passing attack struggled to move the ball in the air.

Tennessee fans may have gotten a little ahead of themselves and raised expectations far faster than they should have. Local stores introduced “Believe the Heup” t-shirts in honor of Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel. The internet was abuzz with fans who couldn’t wait to hand Kiffin a heaping serving of humble pie. The former 1-year-and-I’m-gone UT coach had other plans. So did the moronic scofflaw that threw the golf ball at Kiffin.

Like so many times before, the table was set for a Tennessee head coach’s first signature win. Beating Missouri and South Carolina over the past 2 weeks was nice, but those wins didn’t look like something to brag about on Saturday. Missouri lost to Texas A&M 35-14 and South Carolina rallied to beat Vanderbilt 21-20. That begs the question. How impressive were those wins? Are these Vols going to fall apart like so many teams before them?

It would be easy to say “yes.” History would be on your side. Tennessee’s 3 previous coaches struggled for that win that would put them over the top. However, these Vols are different despite the Ole Miss result. Heupel is still a very good offensive coach. Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker is still a good quarterback, although he had to leave the game before UT’s final possession with a left leg injury.

The Vols have one deficiency that they just can’t overcome — a lack of talent and depth. The shortcoming was evident on Saturday as the Vols struggled through offensive line injuries and were without starting tailback Tiyon Evans, who missed the game with an ankle injury. The injuries hampered the Vols in pass protection and took their best runner out of the game. For now, that’s just too much to overcome. The Vols just don’t have SEC-level backups at many positions. That doesn’t mean the situation is permanent.

There was a time when a lack of talent meant that it would take a long time to rebuild. It would take a team like the Vols years to become truly relevant again. Just ask Butch Jones, Derek Dooley or Jeremy Pruitt. However, this team feels different even after a loss. There was never a lack of fight or toughness even as the Vols trailed for most of the game. They even fought after they were likely struck by thrown objects.

Under Heupel, Tennessee is still trending in the right direction even if his fans aren’t. Heupel should be able to expedite UT’s rebuilding process for a couple of reasons. First, Heupel’s offense will be attractive to offensive recruits — despite some of its inefficiencies against the Rebels on Saturday. Second, Hooker is proof that transfers can and will play at Tennessee. Remember, transfers don’t have to sit out a season anymore. They can play right away. College football is full of players who have left one program for another and had an immediate impact. Hooker is just one example.

Was the loss to Ole Miss deflating? Certainly. Does it mean all momentum is lost? Absolutely not. With Heupel’s offensive approach and the transfer portal, the Vols still have a bright future. It just may not be evident in this season’s win-loss record.

The Vols, who are now 4-3, will likely lose to Alabama on Saturday. The Georgia game on Nov. 13 looks like a loss considering how good the Bulldogs’ defense has played this season. UT should beat South Alabama and Vanderbilt to close out the season. If the predictable turns true, the swing game for the Vols’ season is a Nov. 6 matchup against Kentucky. That’s the type of game in which everyone will learn plenty about these Vols and their ability to fight through adversity.

It’s important to keep in mind that Kentucky is not the Kentucky that most fans are used to. The Wildcats were undefeated at 6-0 and No. 11 before losing to Georgia in an unflattering fashion Saturday. Despite Kentucky’s fast start, the Vols can beat the Wildcats as long as Tennessee’s players don’t lose morale after Saturday’s loss and 2 more likely losses coming up before the Kentucky game.

If the Vols can beat the Cats and the rest of the season plays out as one would expect, the Vols would end the season with a 7-5 record and would be bowl eligible. That’s a step in the right direction.

I’ve been called overly critical at times. Now, I may be overly optimistic with the Vols under Heupel. I’ve seen too much player improvement and too much high-level schematic coaching to think that Tennessee is about to endure another short-term coach with no chance of succeeding. I would be stunned if Heupel finds himself on the hot seat in the next 3 years. The Vols are trending in the right direction. Don’t let Kiffin’s win on Saturday take that from you along with the golf ball that was thrown at him.

The Vols just don’t have the talent they need to compete consistently with ranked teams. Heupel is smart. He knows that. He’ll move past this loss and use his energy to try to pull a big upset against Alabama or Georgia and make sure his team has the right approach to beat Vandy and South Alabama. This season — as bizarre as it sounds — likely depends on the Kentucky game. Nevertheless, the Vols could be relevant on the national stage again and it might happen much sooner than you think.