KNOXVILLE — Michael Palardy had just completed woofing down Momma's Pancake Breakfast at Cracker Barrel — that's three buttermilk pancakes, two eggs and a smoked meat of your choice, by the way — when the autograph seekers descended upon him Sunday morning.
"That's one thing that has never happened to me before," said the University of Tennessee's newest football hero. "I've had people say, 'Hi,' or 'Good game,' stuff like that. But that's the first time anyone's ever asked me for my autograph."
There's been a first time for a lot of things since Butch Jones took over as head coach of the Volunteers last December. The first time since the end of leather helmets for gray uniforms. The first time in decades that the Big Orange received a standing ovation from their fan base at the end of a gut-wrenching loss (Georgia). The first time anyone's been able to convince former quarterback Tony Robinson to return to campus in 25 years.
And now we have autograph hounds sniffing out Palardy, the occasionally maligned senior kicker whose 19-yard field goal at last Saturday's final horn delivered UT its first victory over a ranked opponent since 2009, No. 11 South Carolina falling 23-21.
But for all that good work and all those good times, can these Vols, now 4-3 for the season, deliver college football its biggest shocker of the year? Can they go on the road to topple top-ranked and two-time defending national champion Alabama, something they haven't done since Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa before the 2007 season?
"I don't see weaknesses," Jones said Monday about Alabama. "I see a great football team that is extremely well coached and well disciplined. Alabama's so deep, they're so fundamentally sound, the back end of their defense, they don't let you breathe."
But Jones also issued a statement to make at least a few of Tennessee's future foes hold their breath. Said the coach of his rapidly improving team: "We haven't even come close to playing our best football game."
But Palardy believes he's already playing the best football he's ever played, largely because of Jones.
"I would say it is a complete 180," he said of his confidence now over the his previous seasons. "[Coach Jones] prepares me for that kick every single day in practice. Sometimes at the end of practice, or even in the middle of practice, he will yell out over the microphone, 'Game-winning field goal!' just to kind of get me prepared for that situation."
Nor are these instructions delivered gently, so as not to disturb the possibly delicate psyche of a kicker.
"I found out early that you have to have thick skin," Palardy said. "No matter what position you play, Coach Jones will be in your ear. He will consistently be in your ear. He is always yelling at me, but it isn't because he is angry, but to look out for what's best of us."
The Tide easily have gotten the best of UT all but one season since Saban took over college football's most storied program (sorry, Notre Dame), but that one season is also why Big Orange fans shouldn't completely write this one off.
In five of those six wins by Saban, the average margin of victory over the Vols was 27.4 points. He beat former coach Derek Dooley by exactly 31 points in all three meetings between the two.
But facing Lane Kiffin's one set of Vols in 2009, the Tide struggled to a 12-10 win. The game was not decided until the final play, when Terrence "Mount" Cody blocked UT kicker Daniel Lincoln's potential game-winning field goal.
Then, as now, the Tide were coming off a brutal stretch of games heading into an off week. Then, as now, the Vols had a first-year coach with an experienced staff that didn't back down from anyone. Say what you will of Kiffin, but unlike Dooley he wasn't in awe of Saban. Dooley worshipped both Saban's Process and his prickly persona, quite possibly to the former UT coach's great detriment.
Jones worships the here and now, his confidence in his own system and coaching staff steeled by past successes at two former jobs. He's already scared the blank stare off Georgia's Mark Richt and caused the Gamecocks' Steve Spurrier to kick his visor.
Given that, there is no reason to think Jones won't similarly annoy Saint Nick, much as Kiffin did four years ago.
Beyond that, look closely at UT's SEC efforts to date. Had Jones not gone all Dr. Frankenstein and decided to experiment with Nate Peterman at quarterback, the Vols might have beaten Florida in Gainesville. Many fans always will believe the Vols should have beaten Georgia two weeks ago in Neyland.
While Tennessee is what it is -- 4-3 overall and 1-2 in the SEC -- it could fairly easily be 3-0 in league play heading to Alabama.
And unlike 2009, when Kiffin sent Lincoln out to kick the game-winner not knowing the player was injured, Palardy has made everyone around him confident he'll always deliver the goods when called upon, which just might give the Vols their first win over a No. 1 team since they beat Bo Jackson and Auburn in 1985.
"We are always taught as quarterbacks not to force a ball in the red zone," UT quarterback Justin Worley said. "We have three points in our back pocket."
At least their kicker seems to be looking at it that way.
"There is still a lot more improvement to be done," Palardy said, "but I feel we are well prepared for the Alabama game."
If he's right, he may never again be able to enjoy a quiet Sunday morning breakfast at Cracker Barrel.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at email@example.com.
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...
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