KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Butch Jones, that bricklayer extraordinaire who also coaches a little football at Tennessee, promised there would be days like this when he took the job.
Of course, when the bottom falls out of a program the way it has at Tennessee over the past few years, days like this probably seem a lot closer to fantasy than they do reality for even the most orange-blooded fans.
But not Saturday and not with this Tennessee team, or, as Jones refers to it, "Team 117."
This was as real as it gets, and the Vols’ march back to relevance suddenly seems a lot more realistic after their last-second 23-21 victory over No. 11 South Carolina, setting off the kind of joyous scene in Neyland Stadium that was once the rule in these parts.
Jones, whose brick-by-brick mantra has taken hold on Rocky Top, chest-bumped everybody in sight, from his players, to Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart, to “Duck Dynasty” star Justin Martin.
“I thought our team took a valuable step forward two weeks ago (in a 34-31 overtime loss to then-No. 6 Georgia),” Jones said. “It was gut-wrenching, but our kids believed and they built confidence. Confidence is a powerful thing. Belief is a powerful thing.
“We had pointed to this game for a long time, and our kids were ready to go.”
Really, it had been forever since the Vols (4-3, 1-2 SEC) had been able to enjoy anything other than a few recruiting classes ranked fairly highly on national signing day.
They’d endured coaching changes, NCAA investigations, 19 consecutive losses to nationally ranked teams and a long, painful fall from college football’s upper crust.
“Everybody had forgotten about us, and when they did talk about us, it’s like we didn’t even exist,” Tennessee receiver Pig Howard said. “Coach Jones gave us a reason to believe again. We believe in him and believe in each other, and this was a big step in what we want to do.”
The Vols won it on Michael Palardy’s 19-yard field goal as time expired, capping a 63-yard drive that was highlighted by a sensational, one-handed 39-yard catch by freshman Marquez North. Tennessee quarterback Justin Worley delivered the clutch throw on third-and-10, and the Vols did what they couldn’t do two weeks ago against Georgia.
They finished the game.
“This is just the start, and it’s something we’ve been building toward,” said senior defensive end Marlon Walls, who was recruited by Phillip Fulmer and has played for three different head coaches at Tennessee.
“We deserved this. We did this for each other. We did this for Coach Jones. We did it for all those great players who came before us here at Tennessee. We knew we should have won the game (against Georgia). We weren’t going to let this one get away.”
Jones had invited more than 200 former lettermen to come back for Saturday’s game, and several of them ran through the giant “T" before the game. Tony Robinson was there. So was Jamal Lewis, Al Wilson and even two players from the 1951 national championship team -- Herky Payne and Pat Shires.
“We talk about family, and once a Vol, always a Vol,” said Jones, who has gone out of his way to embrace former players and bring them back into the fold.
The other thing he’s done is create a culture the players have bought into completely and totally, and their confidence has soared ever since a 59-14 beating at No. 2 Oregon the third week of the season.
South Carolina was the fourth ranked opponent the Vols have played this season. No. 1 Alabama will be the fifth next week, and then it’s on to Missouri, which is the lone unbeaten team right now in the SEC’s Eastern Division.
“We can play with anybody,” Walls said. “But you’ve got to go out there and prove it on the field. That’s what we’re doing right now, and the best thing is that we can still get a lot better.”
Tennessee took a 17-7 lead into halftime Saturday against a South Carolina team that obliterated Arkansas 52-7 on the road last week. The Gamecocks, after their lackluster start, came charging back in the third quarter and took a 21-17 edge.
“There wasn’t any panic. We knew it was still our game,” Tennessee defensive tackle Daniel McCullers said.
Indeed it was.
The Gamecocks (5-2, 3-2 SEC) had to finish the game without starting quarterback Connor Shaw, who injured his left knee and was scheduled to undergo an MRI later Saturday night. But even before Shaw had to leave the game, South Carolina was struggling to get anything going against Tennessee’s defense in the fourth quarter.
South Carolina was held to 12 total yards in the fourth quarter and had four consecutive three-and-outs.
“Give Tennessee credit,” South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said. “I think they outplayed us, although we were within a play or two of winning it, but we didn’t do it.”
Nope, this day belonged to Tennessee.
“We needed that badly, desperately,” Tennessee running back Rajion Neal said. “It’s been a long time.”