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Tennessee Volunteers 38, Utah St. Aggies 7: There's Hope in Knoxville. Again

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Strong showings by Tennessee have caused everyone to jump the gun before. But the Vols sure looked good against their opening opponent Sunday night

Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

We've been here before, when a win against N.C. State or Cincinnati or some other hyped opponent made people say that maybe Tennessee was back, or at least on the way back. And we've seen those same Tennessee teams crash and burn as reality set in -- that maybe the opponents weren't what we thought and the early-season win was largely an illusion.

But with that caveat out of the way, it's time to acknowledge that Tennessee looked better than a lot of folks thought the Volunteers would look this year. Not like national-title contenders and probably not even like SEC East contenders, but like a team that might be headed for a bowl game. Or could even finish the regular season with -- gasp -- a winning record.

Chuckie Keeton, who was supposed to use this game to launch his Heisman campaign? He was 8-of-15 passing for 144 yards, a touchdown after the game was out of reach and two interceptions. Tennessee largely locked down the Aggies' running game, allowing an even 100 yards on 24 carries -- a number that falls to 62 on 23 carries if you take out Utah State's longest run. All but one of the Aggies' 25 drives went less than 35 yards. A.J. Johnson still looks to be A.J. Johnson, which doesn't hurt.

The offense was more uneven. Justin Worley looked good -- 27-of-38 for 273 yards and three touchdowns -- but Tennessee struggled to establish a running game. The Vols averaged 2.8 yards a carry (39 rushes for 110 yards) and didn't have a run of more than nine yards. They might be able to pass their way to a winning record, but that's going to put a lot of pressure on what's still a relatively young line.

The schedule is still daunting. There are only four more games that Tennessee is likely to be favored in right now (things can change), and we need to see the Volunteers play against something other than a Mountain West team that's also rebuilding both its offensive and defensive lines. But it's not hard to see the Volunteers spoiling a season somewhere, punching their own ticket to the postseason and proving that this year's hope will not evaporate as quickly as the dreams of previous seasons.