KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- If you watched Tennessee's first half against South Carolina (3-3, 0-3 SEC), you may have turned the game off after halftime.
Or, maybe you kept the television on, hoping for another Mizzou-like onslaught.
Tennessee's third quarter didn't deliver. Instead, the Vols allowed the Gamecocks to tack on two scores before regaining momentum in the fourth quarter to drive the nail in the coffin via a Len'Neath Whitehead touchdown run.
Final score: 45-20.
That was close to my prediction of 41-20, and a 25-point win in the SEC is certainly something to be proud about.
That's especially true with this team, as players smiled and laughed while celebrating Josh Heupel's first conference win at home -- a stark contrast to the turmoil of last season.
But the second-half concerns can't be ignored, especially when those same smiling faces admitted to letting off the gas pedal after an intermission that honored VFL and College Football Hall of Famer Al Wilson.
Hendon Hooker divulged that the Vols' offense "relaxed" and “took the lead for granted” in a second half that started with four straight Tennessee drives ending in punts — after four straight first-half drives had ended in touchdowns.
That can't happen against Ole Miss, which escaped Arkansas 52-51 and whose firepower could stifle the Vols in a hurry if Tennessee hits a stalling point like it did on Saturday.
What should happen next week? The bend-don't-break mentality that carried UT to the finish line, and the depth that this team showed on Saturday despite remaining severely thin in several areas.
Alabama transfer Brandon Turnage was spectacular, flying around the field for a team-leading 14 tackles, two for loss, after learning just Friday that he'd be starting in place of Theo Jackson.
“I appreciate the way I was coached by Coach Saban,” Turnage said. “He treated every day like a game, so I was ready when I came here and got my number called in a game. The coaches here have been great, too. I’m blessed.”
Hooker was great too, completing 17 of 25 passes for 225 yards and three passing touchdowns, each one to a different receiver. This game marked his fifth straight outing with multiple touchdowns through the air, making him the first Tennessee gunslinger to do so since Tyler Bray in 2012.
He also ran for 66 yards on 20 attempts, while Tiyon Evans breezed his way to 119 yards and a touchdown on 16 touches.
“Hendon’s continuing to grow and develop offensively,” Heupel said. “To have complete command of what we’re doing. That’s in the run game, that’s in the pass game, it's understanding protections. You can see that we trust the ball in his hands in certain situations too and continues to grow and take great care of the football. He has great command and the players have responded to him in a really positive way.”
As mentioned, Whitehead also came on strong, punching in the second touchdown of his career after Evans went to the sideline.
We'll know later this week whether he's available against the Rebels, but Tennessee will need more than Evans next week — it’ll need a full 60 minutes of excellent football.
Because the 45 good minutes the Vols played on Saturday won't be enough against No. 17 Ole Miss or Alabama, which is floating around ranking limbo after falling to unranked Texas A&M in Aggieland.
"We were good enough to win (Saturday)," Heupel said. "End of the day, that's really all I'm thinking about. Each week is a one-game season."
Heupel has uttered that phrase after each and every game this season, and it remains true: each week requires its own set of challenges and means of preparation.
If each week represents a season, though, then the next two weeks could represent two full years.
If the stall-outs that came against a decent-but-not-great South Carolina defense last any longer, then things could get dicey very quickly.
But if UT continues the production that we saw in the first half against South Carolina and in last week’s win at Missouri, we should be in for a fun ride in the next six — and now, very possibly seven — games.
Fans are certainly enjoying Heupel’s brand of ball, which seemed to please him greatly after the Carolina win.
“I hope they enjoy the heck out of it,” he said Saturday. “We’re going to play fast and physical in all three phases of the game. Our kids are competing really hard. That’s the first step to making the fan base and this state proud of who we are on the football field.”
The next step, of course, is regaining respect and status among the elite teams of the SEC. Saturday’s romp over another new coach in this conference was certainly a good start.
Whether Tennessee wins or loses in the next two weeks, though, Josh Heupel’s program (now 4-2, 2-1 SEC) is already light years ahead of where most people — including yours truly — thought it would be at this point in a new era.
So why not throw in a couple upset bids to shake things up even more?
As Kiffin said last week, bring your popcorn.
Because if these Vols can keep scoring at will, this season is about to get interesting in a hurry.
Cover photo via Jake Nichols