Smiles have been in short supply around the Neyland-Thompson Sports Center the past few weeks.
As Tennessee struggled to a 2-4 start, the typical Sunday night practice was subdued and silent. But this week, Tennessee’s players were chatting, cutting up and even laughing as they gathered on the indoor field before practice began.
The good vibes even extended to UT coach Phillip Fulmer.
“It sure feels good coming to work on Sunday with a win,” he said.
Tennessee’s 34-3 victory over Mississippi State won’t be worth any points against No. 2 Alabama this week in Neyland Stadium (TV: ESPN, 7:45 p.m.). But it still has value for the Vols, who improved to 3-4 overall and avoided their first 0-4 start in SEC play since 1988 with a victory over Mississippi State.
“With the season we’ve been having so far, it’s obviously been disappointing,” UT center Josh McNeil said Sunday night. “I can’t explain just how big this Mississippi State win was for us.”
The Bulldogs aren’t exactly an elite team. At 2-5, State has the worst overall record in the SEC, and its 101 points scored is the lowest total in the conference.
No matter who they beat, the Vols will take a confidence boost where they can get one this season. Ditto for a conference win.
“This was very important,” offensive coordinator Dave Clawson said. “Very important that we won an SEC game, too.”
Particularly encouraging for McNeil was the way Tennessee won.
“Not only did we go out there and win the game, but we won it in a really good fashion,” he said. “We were really solid offensively, ran the ball, passed the ball, played great defense, good special teams. It was just a really solid win. It just gave our team a really big boost of confidence through the whole team — offense, defense and special teams. We really needed that.”
It’s been a while since UT felt this good after a game.
The Vols had 12 days to stew over an overtime loss to UCLA on Sept. 1, and then a 35-3 victory over UAB quickly gave way to a 24-point loss to Florida. UT’s lone win since then — a 13-9 victory against Northern Illinois sandwiched between losses at Auburn and Georgia — didn’t exactly inspire confidence.
Still, Fulmer credited his players for hanging on during a 2-4 start, even if it wasn’t much fun.
“I don’t know if you’re able to keep it fun when you’re not winning,” Fulmer said. “But they stayed with us. They stayed committed to what we were trying to come out of, that tough couple games you felt like you should have won or could have won but didn’t. That’s really hard when you got 12 (games) to play.”
Saturday’s game won’t be easy.
Alabama (7-0) enters as the only undefeated team in the SEC and ranks second in the BCS standings, released for the first time this season Sunday. The Crimson Tide boasts the nation’s No. 2 rushing defense and has only allowed 23 first-half points all season.
“If I could pick somebody (to play), maybe I wouldn’t do that right now,” Fulmer said. “But every time you play in the Southeastern Conference, it’s an opportunity. We had a couple games get away from us early in the season that we did have a chance to win. Certainly we need to play our best against a really fine Alabama football team to have a chance to win.”
Drew Edwards covers University of Tennessee football. He may be reached at 865-342-6274.