There were so many different narratives threatening to break loose this afternoon in one of the most exciting games Neyland Stadium has ever seen. With Georgia leading 17-3 and lined up to kick a field goal to make it a three possession game, it felt like the same old story was about to unfold: the Vols out-talented and incapable on offense, playing hard but falling in a hole too deep to climb out of. Fast forward to the start of the fourth quarter, when Aaron Murray had just made a huge play and Georgia re-took the lead 24-17, and then Marquez North dropped a huge pass on the following drive, and the narrative shifted to, "Well, we're getting closer. Can't make mistakes against a great team, Georgia's going to win, but we're really getting closer."
And then Tennessee did what almost none of us expected, because none of us had seen it in years. Hadn't seen it at all, let alone against a Top 10 championship-caliber team. The Vols answered the bell and responded to adversity in the fourth quarter. Then got a stop. Then took the lead.
We'll get to what happened next in a minute, but it carried a particular cruelty which should be noted here: all of our near-misses against good teams in the last seven years have all come on the road. So did the times we didn't miss, come to think of it. This game goes in the first year coach pantheon with 2009 Alabama and 2010 LSU, and also had some echoes of last year's defeats at Georgia and South Carolina. You could even point all the way back to 2008 at UCLA or 2007 in the SEC Championship Game. In the last seven years, when we've gone to the wire at Neyland Stadium it's been with UAB, Troy, and Vanderbilt. As the fourth quarter played on, there was an urgency in the Neyland crowd that I kept trying to place because you just hadn't felt it in so long. Am I wrong in saying we have to go back to LSU in 2006 to find a home game like this, win or lose, where the Vols and an elite opponent battled play-for-play until the final gun?
And the crowd drank it up, fuel for the mass hysteria that was just waiting to bust loose. And there was Butch Jones with the lighter, priming it every time the scoreboard said 4th and 1 and our head coach said, without hesitation, "Let's go." And there was this Tennessee offense, so maligned all year, converting every single one.
So we finally, gleefully, unbelievably moved to the narrative we all kept hoping for when Rajion Neal danced into the end zone with 1:54 to go. The Vols led 31-24 and needed one more stop from a defense that had played really well to finish it. Georgia was out of timeouts and the Vols were one play or one stop away from The One Big Win.
It wasn't to be.
Aaron Murray got the pen back and wrote his own story. A word about Georgia's senior quarterback for a moment: that kid is unbelievable. Some will look at 19 of 35 for just 196 yards and lament his performance. I think Tennessee's defensive staff should do backflips over it. Here's the difference between Tennessee and Georgia right now: the Dawgs have a house built with bricks. Lots of them. So when Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall and Malcolm Mitchell and Michael Bennett and Justin Scott-Wesley all go down, the Dawgs have depth. Not just names on a chart, but real live football players. Tennessee has always said, "next man up," but there's a difference between replacing Jamal Lewis with Travis Henry and replacing Marlin Lane with Tom Smith. (No disrespect to Tom Smith, but the Vols did give Rajion Neal 33 touches and Smith zero). Georgia has the first kind of depth. J.J. Green came in and got 129 yards on 17 carries. And they have Aaron Murray, who calmly led the Dawgs downfield in that final 1:54, throwing to Johnny Backup and making it work. He's the SEC's career passing leader, and he deserves it.
The narrative got that extra special twist of the knife in overtime, with Pig Howard - 10 touches for 116 yards - losing the ball inches from the goal line and watching it bounce out of bounds, the rare touchback through the end zone handing the ball back to a team with a kicker who made a 57 yard field goal. And at that point the story was out of twists and turns, Georgia lives to fight another day, Tennessee gets reacquainted with heartbreak. What an incredible football game.
Here's the thing though: I don't think Tennessee got lucky today. I think we straight up played really well.
This wasn't 2010 LSU, where the Tigers' four turnovers have been forgotten because of what happened at the end. The Vols got nothing from Georgia, but made their own breaks with an incredible blocked punt by Jalen Reeves-Maybin, special teams deity. Tennessee wasn't just managing the game. The Vols scored 28 points in the second half and finished with 404 yards on the day. Rajion Neal had 28 carries for 148 yards.
The only team to hold Georgia under 35 points in regulation in the last eleven games was Alabama in Atlanta last year. The Vols did it today. In those same eleven games, Aaron Murray never threw for less than 208 yards and averaged 334.5 this year coming into today. He got 196. I know the last drive was painful, but on the whole this defense played the way the Vols need them to play to be successful.
And Justin Worley will never be Aaron Murray, but we're not asking him to be. What he did today was the best version of what we hoped he would be: managed the game by making almost zero risky throws. And perhaps most importantly, move the chains, which the Vols did with great beauty today: 7 of 17 on third down, 3 of 3 on fourth down. In the fourth quarter, Worley converted 3rd and 8 at the Georgia 21, 3rd and 10 at the UT 30, 4th and 1 at the UGA 35, then 3rd and 4 at the UGA 19 in overtime.
This one hurts in the moment because of what we juuuuuuuuuust missed. But as soon as time allows us to heal, I think we can find a football team making legitimate progress and doing so against an elite opponent.
Nothing will come easy for the Vols. It's not just South Carolina and Alabama. Auburn just beat Ole Miss, and Missouri is crushing Vanderbilt on the road right now in a season when beating the Dores and Cats won't be enough to go bowling. But if what we saw today wasn't luck or some fluke, and I don't think it was, we've also got a Tennessee team that's super young making legitimate progress. And if we play this well going forward, other teams better watch out for us too.
Tennessee gave their all today and just missed the fairy tale. But the performance itself didn't look like myth. Tennessee, as you know, is also building a house made of bricks. But today suggested we may not have to wait until next year to lay the foundation. Tennessee will take an off week to catch its breath, and Butch Jones will have to lead a group of young men who are familiar with disappointment to keep getting better, keep grinding. Help is coming, you could see it waiting on the sidelines today, eager to sign on the dotted line in February.
But this isn't about next season. Not yet. Tennessee played an incredible football game today. Keep moving in that direction, and we may have enough to blow some houses down just yet.
So hurt. So proud. So eager to see us try again in two weeks.