So, the invocation at Neyland Stadium this evening was given by a Catholic gentleman who serves as a chaplain for the Knoxville Police Department. I'm sure he's a great guy and I've heard some interesting prayers from a dozen different denominations in my thirty years in that stadium. But before he got to the part where he prayed for Tyler Bray specifically - which I'm sure some folks appreciated - he said something along the lines of, "We look out and see the black mixed with the orange in the stands tonight, and it reminds us of our own mortality." It was, shall we say, ominous.
I'm tired of being reminded that Tennessee is not what it used to be. It's one thing against one of the best Alabama teams of all time in Tuscaloosa. I can deal with getting blasted by a team that is vastly superior.
Tonight was not LSU or Alabama. It was a wounded South Carolina team looking for its second victory in Knoxville...ever. It was a game in which the Vols took away Alshon Jeffery (3 catches, 17 yards) and sacked Connor Shaw twice.
What's more, Tennessee finally got some of the breaks we've been missing. Not only did Prentiss Waggner make another big play (and that guy has to be closing in on Eric Berry's school record, and thus the NCAA record, for interception return yardage), but the Vols got lucky: a muffed punt from Carolina, and the ol' helmet-on-ball forced fumble.
The Tennessee program is starving for anything good to happen. If you haven't been recently, here's what it's like to go to a game these days: the crowd is more quiet than usual, almost resigned. We get kind of loud on third down defense, but only loud in comparison to first and second down, not loud compared to third down defense in previous years.
But when something really good happens unexpectedly - as was the case on all three turnovers - the old noise returns in an instant. Everyone explodes out of their seats with tremendous volume, because we're both so surprised that something went our way...but also because we miss those moments, and are dying for more of them. We walk some imaginary line between constant sorrow and old hope...not too far gone to believe it can happen, but less vocal until it does every week.
Those three plays gave Tennessee the ball at South Carolina's 18, 2, and 27 yard line. On all three plays, we thought, "Here we go, finally."
The Vols got 3 points.
Every Tennessee fan should dress as Charlie Brown for Halloween. Not just because we keep having the ball pulled away from us. Mostly for the part where he just screams.
Here's the good part. Ready?
This might be the most difficult schedule a Tennessee team has ever faced
The bar for this is 1990, when the Vols played #5 Colorado, #3 Auburn, #9 Florida, #1 Notre Dame, and #15 Ole Miss. Colorado and Notre Dame went on to play each other for the National Championship.
This year, the Vols have faced #16 Florida, #1 LSU, #2 Alabama, and now #13 South Carolina. Arkansas is currently ranked #10, and if they beat Carolina next week they'll continue to climb. This obviously doesn't include a Cincinnati team that could win the Big East and a Georgia team that could win the SEC East.
The difference, of course, is that the '90 Vols went 2-1-2 against those ranked teams and won the SEC Championship. These Vols aren't good enough to do anything like that against a schedule this tough. They fight for as long as they can - I have never questioned this team's heart and didn't question it tonight - but sometimes talent wins out. It's a team wrecked by attrition and injury against one of the most difficult schedules of the modern era. Sometimes it's helpful to remember that in some ways, this team is doing the best it can.
This is the end of the good part.
Matt Simms will accept your apology now
Not because he's the answer going forward - we've got all week to talk about the quarterback controversy that could still make things worse for Derek Dooley this season. But because some people were convinced there was no way it could get worse than what Simms had done.
Does Tennessee win tonight if Simms goes the whole way? I don't know.
Here's what I do know: none of us should've buried Simms for what he did against LSU and Alabama, and none of us should bury Justin Worley for what he did in his very first start against South Carolina. Simms is who he is, and that may have been enough tonight. You can make an argument that Justin Worley cost us the game, but that can be a good learning experience for him before he's taking snaps in games that truly matter in a couple of years.
You can also make a case that if Da'Rick Rogers catches a touchdown, it's a different game.
The EA Sports School of Coaching
I'm not sure what percentage of Tennessee fans are serious NCAA or Madden players. But however big that group is, I know that 100% of them were furious about Dooley's use of timeouts tonight.
If you've ever played one of those games with any degree of competitiveness, you know that timeouts are like gold. You save them at all costs, because those 40 seconds on the final drives can be extraordinarily valuable. On the video game, you take a delay of game penalty over burning a timeout, especially in the second half. You don't do that in real life, I get that.
But the first one of you that can explain to me why we called a timeout on 4th and 15 in the fourth quarter before we punted will have my sincere appreciation.
And see, this is one of the little things that shouldn't have to matter. The story of this season should be, "Hey, it's terribly unfortunate that we had to play such an insane schedule without four of our best five players. What terrible luck Tennessee has! Poor Derek Dooley, none of this is that guy's fault, I'll be pulling for him to get it turned around in 2012." That's still the primary narrative after tonight. Even if Tennessee fails to make a bowl game, I'd still argue this as the primary narrative. Because I don't want to make judgments on Derek Dooley based on what he does with his best players in a cast or on crutches.
But a sub-thread that refuses to go away are the little mistakes that Tennessee is simply not good enough to overcome...and thus, they drive us absolutely crazy.
That timeout is one. Three different people brought that timeout up to me before I got from Neyland Stadium to this keyboard. Having 12 men on the field again is another, even though it didn't really hurt us. And whatever the old record was for false starts on 3rd/4th and 1, we've shattered it this season.
These are little mistakes that stand out so much more this season. They shouldn't be the main story, but when you really can't do anything productive offensively, they become the thing we talk about.
I'm not passing final judgment on Derek Dooley because of what he does without his best players. But it would help if we could do things that high school teams and video game enthusiasts somehow manage to not screw up.
I'm in a bad mood. I hope I'm not lashing out at something that doesn't deserve it. I don't think I am.
Whoever made the decision to play rap/rock music over the PA during timeouts and in between series needs to cease and desist immediately. Zero percent of it was welcome. Zero percent of it made people "more hype" or whatever it is they're going for, except for "Jump Around", which we stole from Wisconsin. We're not some up-and-coming program that's trying to increase interest in the sport on campus. We're the University of Tennessee. Other schools should be copying us, not the other way around. We have The Pride of the Southland Marching Band. What single benefit was there from piping in that music? Because all it did was piss me off. I swear to you, if I see a Kiss Cam in Neyland Stadium, I'm going straight to the press box and demanding answers.
You want people to be more enthusiastic? Win more games.
We do some things really well. I love The Pride. Can't remember one of those "This is Tennessee" videos over the last several seasons that I didn't love. Whoever talked Johnny Majors into joining that flash mob and wearing orange pants has my thanks - that literally was the best moment of the night.
Piped in music needs to go. Don't give me "it's a recruiting edge" - no recruit says, "Man, I'm going to Tennessee because they played five seconds of 'Tom Sawyer' by Rush coming out of a timeout!" Give me a break.
There's plenty that's broken at the University of Tennessee that demands the attention of smart, capable people. The atmosphere in Neyland isn't broken. You know why it's not as good as it used to be? We're 3-5 and haven't been ourselves for four straight years.
I wish most of the stadium didn't leave when the Vols go down two scores. They've taken on the personality of the team: second half adversity = we fold. It's embarrassing for all involved. But playing a few seconds of Rage Against The Machine or some weird AC/DC remix isn't going to make them decide to stay. (For the record, I like all of these bands. Not the point.)
Winning cures all things. It's going to be another year until we really have the chance to make that happen on a regular, meaningful basis.
Until then...let's not make things worse on ourselves.
And let's hope Matt Simms, Justin Worley, and the Vols have what it takes to beat MTSU.