Mike Strange: Brutal stretch forced Vols to grow

Mike Strange

That which doesn't kill you makes you stronger. So said philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.

If linebacker Ray Nitschke had applied that to football he would have probably said if you can survive a month-long beating in October you'll live to kick some butts in November.

Tennessee, by all indications, survived its brutal October and came out stronger on the other end.

The indications I speak of are dominating Memphis and Ole Miss by a combined 102-28 the past two Saturdays.

"I was looking at it at the beginning of the season,'' senior defensive end Chris Walker said Saturday. "I don't think anybody has a tougher four-game stretch than we did.

"It was a difficult time for us . . . but those games are what is making us play so well right now. Learning from those mistakes, we're being a better team for it.''

To review October, the Vols were two-touchdown underdogs in all four games.

They nearly pulled the stunning upset at No. 12 LSU, only to be heartbroken - 16-14 - by the awful penalty and subsequent LSU touchdown at the end.

They pretty much self-destructed in a 41-14 drubbing at Georgia.

Next came No. 8 Alabama, in which a 13-10 halftime game became a 41-10 Crimson Tide rout.

Finally, a mistake-filled but competitive 38-24 loss at South Carolina.

When November dawned, the Vols were 2-6 and winless in five SEC tries.

Furthermore, they were undergoing a quarterback change, always a dicey chemistry equation.

Some teams, especially teams on their third head coach in three years, might have splintered and thrown in the towel.

Some teams, especially teams with seniors who still remember playing in the 2007 SEC championship game, might have become frustrated enough to quit.

You might argue that Tennessee's two-game winning streak is strictly a function of playing weaker competition. Memphis is terrible. Ole Miss is making a preseason prediction of a last-place finish in the SEC West ring true.

There's some merit to that, but it doesn't account entirely for the fact that Tennessee has played some good football the past two weeks.

So give Derek Dooley and his staff credit for shepherding a fragile, young, undermanned squad through the Valley of the Shadow of October Football Death.

"Better times weren't going to come in November if we had the wrong approach in October,'' Dooley said Sunday night.

"I always felt I should handle it the way I'd handle any October, and that is to not get 100 percent married to the results.

"The biggest thing is focusing on the process and not defining your entire existence on the results.''

Guess what? Now that good times have replaced hard times, that's still the biggest thing.

The two teams standing between UT and bowl eligibility are Vanderbilt and Kentucky. The Vols are a combined 49-1 against those two traditional season-ending rivals the past 25 years.

"You want to feel good because you're winning,'' Dooley said, "but what you hope is that the winning inspires you to work even harder.

"We have to work very hard to make sure we don't take victory and turn it into complacency.''

Complacency can kill you, too.

Mike Strange may be reached at strangem@knoxnews.com or 865-342-6276. Follow him at http://twitter.com/strangemike44 and http://blogs.knoxnews.com/strange.

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Comments » 5

asleep#212036 writes:

I thought 2-6 was about right but I didn't figure on taking LSU to the wire or Florida into the 4th quarter and I didn't really expect a blowout at Georgia or OT against UAB. Alabama, Oregon, and SC beat us about like I thought. I do think that playing all those tough games with lots of freshmen has made this stretch much easier. Yes, the competition is downgraded considerably but all schools have games like that on their schedules. Point is, you have to win those games and we have not only won them, but dominated them. If we can put together two more performances like those - on the road at Vandy and against Kentucky at home - next year should start off much better and probably end better too. Go Vols!!!

FWBVol writes:

Tennessee has always played tough competition early in the season. Yes, we often open with a non conference cupcake. But we have opened at UCLA and Cal in the last several years as well. Even when we start with a lesser team in the first couple of games we face Florida no later than week three.

People talk about how UT's schedule eases up in November, but the tradition has always been to play Vanderbilt and Kentucky or, as the case might be, Kentucky and Vandy, to close out the regular season.

Vandy and Kentucky might have a history of being the whipping boys of the East, but for many years UT has been their bowl game and the Vols have had to fight hard to pull out wins despite the combined 49-1 record in the last 25 years.

Other than UT Martin and UAB, the six teams we faced in the first two months of the season include the current No. 1 team in the country, last year's National Champs, a Georgia team that was many thought would win the East, but fell on hard times when Green was suspended, a Florida team that was supposedly a top 10 team, and South Carolina that won the East.

That's the kind of schedule that forces puppies to grow fangs.

murrayvol writes:

I may not like 4-6 but I like where the Vols are as a team.

I don't think anyone said "don't block me...I'm not gonna rush" in October.

woodwr#217203 writes:

in response to dead_vol:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

Hopefully a bowl with a beat-able opponent.

OTPVol writes:

in response to murrayvol:

I may not like 4-6 but I like where the Vols are as a team.

I don't think anyone said "don't block me...I'm not gonna rush" in October.

I think some Old Miss players did last week. I was travelling and had to listen to it on the radio and you could even feel it there, they just rolled over and gave up. We lived with complacency far too long during former Coach Phil Fulmer's tenure. I like Coach Derek Dooley more every day;

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