KNOXVILLE

For a few minutes Saturday afternoon, the scene inside Neyland Stadium recalled the good ol' days of Tennessee football. The really, really old good ol' days.

There stood the vast majority of the University of Tennessee football team, serenaded by UT's marvelous Pride of the Southland marching band. Beyond that, the mood of almost every one of the 85,462 sitting in the facility not clad in Mississippi State maroon was at least momentarily lifted by the Volunteers winning their first Football Bowl Subdivision game of the season in their fifth try by beating the Bulldogs 20-10.

Throw in that earlier victory over Football Championship Subdivision member University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, and UT is now 2-4 for the season heading into next weekend's visit to No. 1 Alabama.

But that's not what was most memorable about this. Instead, it was the Big Orange football team standing before the band, gently swaying to and fro, along with the cheerleaders, all of them soaking in the perfect playing of "The Tennessee Waltz," even if this win was anything but a waltz.

"We just keep putting younger guys out there, and we have a young football team and they have so much to learn," said second-year UT head coach Jeremy Pruitt. "(But) it's a great win for our program. It's great for these guys who are working their tails off to have some fun with it."

This program used to have great wins all the time. The players spent many a late afternoon or night soaking up "The Tennessee Waltz" and "Rocky Top," a lot of fans joining in the fun.

But as this newspaper's Gene Henley pointed out a few days ago, since the start of the 2010 season, only traditional Southeastern Conference East Division cellar dwellers Kentucky and Vanderbilt entered the weekend with as few league victories as the Vols (21). In fact, UT actually has landed in the division cellar one more time (3) than either the Wildcats or the Commodores in that span.

Yet Saturday's joyous scene was the way it almost always used to be when Peyton Manning wasn't just in the house but on a ladder, leading the band after another Big Orange triumph.

Of course, that was also before most of the current Tennessee roster was born. Soak that in, if you will. These Vols have mostly seen everyone else celebrating inside their majestic stadium.

Great programs such as Alabama, Florida, Oklahoma and, at times, Georgia. Good programs such as Auburn, Brigham Young, Missouri and South Carolina. Subpar to poor programs such as Georgia State, Vanderbilt and Wyoming. All have posted wins inside Neyland in the past 15 seasons.

And had Mississippi State won Saturday, this UT season was pretty much done, almost certain to produce a third straight losing record.

Yes, the schedule softens somewhat after the Alabama game. But South Carolina -- which went on the road to stun No. 3 Georgia on Saturday -- visits Neyland the week after the Alabama game. A trip to Missouri in late November also looks troublesome. Lose this game and to Alabama and the Vols would have had to win out to reach a bowl game.

Now they have a mulligan, so to speak. There is realistic hope to add at least four more wins to the current 2-4 record. They might even do better than that, even if freshman quarterback Brian Maurer sat out the second half Saturday with a concussion.

Yet that also made this one better, because former starter Jarrett Guarantano hit six of his seven passes, tossed a win-clinching touchdown to senior wideout Tyler Byrd and committed zero turnovers in a game in which Maurer threw two interceptions into the end zone.

"We didn't ask him to do a whole lot," Pruitt said of the conservative game plan dialed up by the coaching staff to take advantage of the Bulldogs' own struggling offense. "But I said last week that (Guarantano) would help us win a game this year (after he was benched in favor of Maurer). He'll help us win some more."

Here's what will help the Vols win some more both this season and in the seasons to follow: the character of the vast majority of the young men in the program, beginning with Byrd, who had pretty much been forgotten this season.

In today's instant-gratification, place-my-name-in-the-transfer-portal-at-the-first-unhappy-moment world, Byrd said: "Just stay the course. Just don't quit."

He also said, "You've got to keep working hard. Things don't always go your way."

It's easy to focus on all that has gone wrong in this program in recent years and question Byrd's refreshing loyalty. There are the five true head coaches since 2008, not counting interims. There are the seven losing seasons. All those SEC losses, including three straight to Vanderbilt.

But there also are guys such as Byrd, who's had every reason to leave but refuses to quit.

As the players headed for the corner of the end zone where the band and the students were waiting to help them celebrate, senior defensive back Nigel Warrior jumped into the student section to thank them for their support.

Afterward, while meeting with the media, linebacker Daniel Bituli, also a senior, said, "I should have joined you."

Said a smiling Warrior: "Yeah, you should have."

Because unlike the old days, those celebratory moments don't come around nearly as much as they used to. At least until Pruitt can teach all those young guys all they need to know to win more games than they lose.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.

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