I felt like a coach today, sitting in my living room watching the grainy ESPN3 pixelated images of tiny, non-HD Vols run around my television screen. Obviously, it had nothing to do with my view of the action, but rather my general state-of-mind.
No matter how many points Tennessee scored, I stewed in a sour disposition.
From the blown coverage on Chazz Anderson's 68-yard zone-read touchdown scamper to Tyler Bray's fumbled snap in the orange zone to the five drops by five different receivers to Devrin Young's fumbled kick return to the botched squib kick to having yet ANOTHER punt blocked, I fumed. I screamed at my television, I lamented how lapses like this couldn't happen against good teams, I fired our coaches a couple of times...
When the end of the game came and the Vols had cruised to a 41-10 win over the Buffalo Bulls, I finally breathed easily. But I never felt for the entire game like we were playing anywhere near our capability.
And that's precisely why I'm excited.
It's also probably why there's going to be a fair bit of disappointment in the Shepard household through the Vols' grueling month of October. I know in my heart and in my head that we're probably not ready to win a lot of games yet, but it feels good to have a belief in your team that they can go out there and win pretty much any football game they play with maybe the exception of Alabama. I believe that this year. Even still.
Throughout much of Saturday's game, I had this same thought racing through my head that I have since Justin Hunter -- our most electrifying weapon -- went down against Florida: "It's not like we don't have talent, guys. Go out there and play like it."
For the most part against Buffalo, the Vols did. It was by far the best UT has looked running the football this season. Tyler Bray was Tyler Bray, which is to say, the best quarterback in the Southeastern Conference. Da'Rick Rogers did what we all thought he would and that is look like anybody else in the SEC would be giddy to have him as a No. 1 receiver. The defense, for the most part, played solid. The Vols found a few more playmakers than we thought we had.
It was a pretty thorough game, and yet, it wasn't even remotely in the same stratosphere of what this team is capable of.
Listen -- Buffalo is a bad football team. Really, really bad. We probably pumped them up a little more all week than they should have been, maybe bought a little too much into Derek Dooley's poor-mouthing prose that's reminiscent of his father's. Fact of the matter is the Bulls are a bottom-of-the-barrel MAC team with inferior talent all over the field.
And the Vols made them look like it.
Where, you ask, is the excitement in beating a team like this? Well, it's in the fact that we did and the fact that we almost never have in recent history [Wyoming comes to mind, as does Ohio U, Marshall, UAB, Memphis, etc.] Tennessee fans can get excited about whipping bad teams because we're not used to watching the Vols do it.
When asked about what he has learned about this squad in the postgame, Dooley said -- and I paraphrase -- "Well, I know we've played three teams here at home that we took care of business against and won the way Tennessee is supposed to win, and we went on the road against a good team and didn't play up to our capabilities." Pretty much sums it up, coach. The key is for UT to keep beating the teams we're supposed to and start playing up to our abilities in those other games. We'll lose some, sure, but if the Vols play like they can, they'll win a few, too. This team can do that, and personally, I'm not going to be pleased if they don't.
Heck, I wasn't pleased on Saturday when they won big.
But this wasn't one of those games where UT made a bunch of mistakes and the style points suffered. There were mental lapses, but they were overshadowed considerably by a complete domination of every facet of the game. Bray was again just incredible, finishing 21-of-30 with four touchdowns and five suffered drops that would have made his final numbers staggeringly ridiculous. Tauren Poole finally displayed a little vision out there. For every great play Rogers made, there were as many sighs of relief when DeAnthony Arnett hauled in two touchdown catches and other players stepped up in the passing game.
Things like that make the mistakes look a lot less worrisome. I mean, Tina Fey has a facial scar, but she's so hot, you hardly notice, right?
Even without Hunter, Tennessee's offense has that Tina Fey hotness capability -- against Buffalo, against Georgia, against South Carolina, against Arkansas, against almost anybody. Alabama and LSU will cause us and everybody else problems, but this team should score points on everybody else -- score enough points that can cover up a few youthful mistakes.
So, Saturday's warm-up certainly provided what it was supposed to. In last week's podcast, Will asked the question about what Tennessee needed to do more -- get something out of the run game or develop other targets for Bray without Hunter. I answered that if we didn't do both against Buffalo, I'd be disappointed. Well, we did plenty of each, but in a perfect scenario, there's still more than enough for Dooley and his coaching staff to harp on throughout the week heading into next Saturday's big-time, primetime game against Georgia at Neyland Stadium in a game that is absolutely a make-or-break showing for UT's season.
Lose that one, and you're looking at a much tougher upset to get to that seven-win plateau and taking the next step in Dooley's career. Win, and all of a sudden, your team is confident, and South Carolina and Arkansas are no longer the daunting games they were originally expected to be.
Saturday's game wasn't flawless, but it was fantastic, nonetheless. If anything, it should show this team that it has the opportunity to be explosive without Hunter and that life still goes on. There's a whole lot of season left and a whole lot of young talent in orange. Maybe not Alabama-level talent or LSU-level talent, but there's plenty of talent to win plenty of football games, and there are plenty of football games left.
It was good that we were bad at times Saturday and it never once mattered. That isn't to say we don't need to get a whole lot better -- only that our inconsistency still produced 41 points. Now, though, the stakes rise. Next week, it's back to our regularly scheduled killer schedule.