It wasn’t long ago that Jeremy Pruitt was on his way out amid recruiting violations and Tennessee football was near the bottom of the SEC.
Now, Volunteer fans are disappointed in a season in which Tennessee will likely finish 10-2. The Vols have come a long way.
Being in the playoff conversation and formerly being ranked No. 1 means you get everyone’s best shot, which was put on show on Saturday against South Carolina.
“I don’t think anybody’s rushed the field since they’ve beaten us in a long time,” junior Cooper Mays said. “They gave us their best shot. We fought to put ourselves in this position. This is what we asked for, and we’ve got to run with it and be better in these situations because putting Tennessee back on top, that’s what comes with it. That was our goal – putting Tennessee back on top. I feel like we’re getting back to that point. You’ve got to be ready for the big-time moment and the big-time games on the road for sure.”
In just Josh Heupel’s second year, many expected Tennessee’s ceiling to be 9-3 with 8-4 seeming more realistic. Instead, Tennessee has earned respect from the national media and – more importantly – the College Football Playoff Committee.
It’s hard to deny the work of Heupel and his staff in transforming the Volunteers into a top-10 team.
Growing up in Knoxville, Mays understands the transformation of Tennessee more than most.
“As a Tennessee boy, I’ve seen the tough times and everything where you don’t win any of the big three (Alabama, Georgia, Florida),” Mays said. “So coming in here and winning two out of the big three this year, that’s a huge accomplishment. It speaks to how coach led us this year and how much effort he’s put in and the whole staff has put in to kind of trying to get us back on top.”
Championships are the goal in Knoxville. Tennessee has made it into the conversation, and staying up there may be even harder.
“I feel like most of our games we were the underdog up until recently,” Mays said. “So, just getting to that point where Tennessee is back on top in college football, it’s been a long, long road getting back here. But it’s going to be a long road staying here. We got to do everything it takes to be that program that stays here and where it’s supposed to be.”