KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- There's just something about this Tennessee team. It's loaded with talent, yes, but it has a little bit of magic that another SEC team held so dear just a few years ago.
Could the 2016 Vols be college football's new version of that serendipitous 2013 Auburn team that found itself playing for a national title? It might be too early to slap that label on Tennessee, but it's hard to ignore the similarities with that Tigers team.
That Auburn team waited until the end of the season for its miracle comebacks -- the "Prayer at Jordan Hare" and the "Kick Six" -- but maybe the Vols are getting that out of the way now in order to have a less stressful finish. In Week 1, Jalen Hurd recovered a Joshua Dobbs fumble in the end zone in overtime that erased a dreadful performance against Appalachian State. Two weeks ago, it was a 38-0 run after trailing by 21 points to Florida in the second quarter. And this past Saturday was the absolute kicker: Tennessee not only erased a 17-point deficit at Georgia, but it also survived a go-ahead Hail Mary touchdown from Jacob Eason with 10 seconds left with its own Hail Mary winner from Dobbs.
"There's something about this team, they're resilient," coach Butch Jones said. "They understand, and you don't win a game like that if you don't have character."
Yes, this team has that championship resolve mixed with championship talent and a side of championship luck. The ball is literally bouncing Tennessee's way -- especially in the second half -- as the Vols have overcome deficits of 65 total points to get to 5-0 this season and rise to No. 9 in the AP Poll.
Jones found himself keeled over and emotional when Dobbs' prayer ended up in the hands of quarterback-turned-receiver (of course) Jauan Jennings as time expired, but he couldn't help but feel some concern going forward. Those first-half meltdowns just can't continue, not with No. 8 Texas A&M and No. 1 Alabama on the docket in consecutive weeks.
"Guys, I'm as mind-boggled as everyone of the slow starts," Jones said. "... Everyone in that locker room understands we have to be better in the first half.
"But at the end of the day, the best you can be is 5-0, and we're 5-0."
Winning certainly cures all, and it's made these first halves filled with blunders seem irrelevant, but that trend can only last so long. Eventually, slow starts catch up with a team, and playing spirited offenses in A&M and Bama could make first-half letdowns more difficult to overcome.
The complexion of this team seems to totally change at halftime. Mistakes get corrected, star players make critical plays at critical times, and the team doesn't get too emotionally high or low during the good times or the bad. It's been an even-keeled, smooth operator in the final two frames.
Defensive end Corey Vareen blames the slow starts on poor execution. Dobbs says the Vols are "shooting ourselves in the foot" with too many first-half mistakes. These first-half issues must be solved soon when you consider that Texas A&M and Alabama rank in the top four of the SEC in both offensive and defensive scoring. The Aggies have trailed by just 37 points this season and have yet to relinquish a lead all season. They've also outscored their opponents 99-34 in the second half. Alabama has trailed by 27 points this season and hasn't relinquished a lead. Alabama has outscored opponents 111-32 in the second half.
So, a second-half start won't do against these two, Vols.
"We have to have more intensity [in the first half]," Dobbs said.
Let's face it: Tennessee hasn't exactly played the most offensively dominant teams so far. Of the four teams Tennessee has trailed by double digits, only Virginia Tech ranks higher than 74th nationally in scoring, sitting at 27th (40.3 ppg). Tennessee's defense has done a masterful job in the second half, as has its offense. Against Florida, Tennessee held a Gators team that racked up 300 yards in the first half to just 102 in the second, while its own offense piled on 35 points. Tennessee's defense had a little more give in the second half against Georgia (hello, 172 yards from Eason), but the offense put 27 points on the board.
These second-half wins say a lot about this team, but so do the first-half issues. Jones and his players know that they can only operate this way for so long before a team finally puts its foot on the gas in the second half.
"It was a great win for us, but we still have a long journey to go ahead of us," defensive end Derek Barnett said.
"We're resilient, but we haven't played our best, yet. We still have to put the first half together, and when we do that, I don't think a lot of teams can hang with us."
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