There are two distinct questions at play in Tennessee's quarterback battle, and the answers continue to be cloudy. The first and most important one today was, "Who gives Tennessee the best chance to beat Florida?" Butch Jones is the head coach and sees practice that we don't, and apparently believed Nathan Peterman was the answer. But I'm willing to bet Butch Jones didn't foresee 4 of 11 with a pair of interceptions and a pair of fumbles (one on a hand-off that may have been Rajion Neal's fault as well), all amounting to five total yards through the air. Those who asked, "What's the worst that could happen if we don't play Justin Worley?" didn't imagine today even though it was just the next Saturday in an already historic season: four turnovers in four plays for the first time in college football history, the worst beating we've taken since 1910, and now what has to be in the conversation for the worst quarterbacking performance in Tennessee Football history.
And hey, Nathan Peterman should keep his head up. His hand was apparently banged up at some point during that blur, this Florida defense wouldn't do anyone any favors, and he's got lots of eligibility in front of him.
But there's truth in saying Peterman played one of the worst games a Tennessee quarterback has ever played. And games like today are why we need to be more responsible when we throw out words like "terrible" to describe games like the ones Justin Worley has been playing.
Hindsight, which we're all using at this point, is 20/20. But it turns out Justin Worley was the one who gave Tennessee the best chance to beat Florida by managing the game, the offense, and making relatively good decisions. When the Gators were such generous hosts - something we all thought we needed for Tennessee to walk out of Gainesville with a win - Tennessee needed a quarterback who took care of the football (and Worley did have one interception on a bad decision in the second half) and took advantage of every opportunity. Peterman was left in the game too long and as a result Tennessee gave away both points and opportunities.
It's so frustrating because we all want to win one of these big games so badly. And when you're dealing with as much of a talent gap as the entire Tennessee team currently faces, you need the opposition to be good to you, and in big games that doesn't happen often. But it did today, and the Vols still failed to take advantage of it, in large part due to Peterman's repeated mistakes (It's funny, I think Justin Worley could've won this game today the way I think Matt Simms could've won against South Carolina in 2011 when Worley played instead). So a strong chance to get the program's first big win since 2009 and one to make everyone lock in with Butch Jones - the kind of win, no matter how many turnovers and backup quarterbacks it involved, would have us writing words like resilience, perseverance, character, and most importantly, change - slipped away.
Justin Worley gave Tennessee its best chance to win today. But the second question - "Who gives Tennessee its best chance to win going forward?" - is still a mystery.
I don't think anyone is going with Peterman today, though the way this is going we may not have seen the last of him. But even the biggest Justin Worley supporter, whether that's me or someone else, will tell you he is certainly limited and doesn't appear to possess the massive upside many inexperienced quarterbacks flash. And though the Vols have a ballyhooed offensive line and gave a much improved defensive effort today, we don't have the other pieces in place to fully support even the best game manager in an effort to beat the best teams on our schedule.
I'm pretty sure any of these guys can put us in position to beat South Alabama. But when the question turns back to Georgia in another big game in two weeks, will anyone other than Justin Worley be the answer over the next two weeks?
This conversation certainly appears to be heading toward Riley Ferguson and Josh Dobbs, but when? How soon is too soon? If you asked who the odds on favorite is to start UT's season opener in 2014, I doubt Worley would lead. But will Butch Jones put Ferguson and/or Dobbs in the Tyler Bray School of Freshman Quarterbacking and hold them until the reasonably winnable games in November? Or can either of them really give us a reasonable edge to beat Georgia or South Carolina?
If the answer is no, I'm still for sticking with Worley for now and what is hopefully an improving defense. Don't say it can't get any worse. You just saw worse, and it cost us. However, it can absolutely get better. Is that coming from one of our freshmen between now and our next opportunity to win one of these games? I don't know.
More than anything, I want to win. So do you. The talent is coming later to help us win later. The quarterback who will play with that talent is almost certainly already on this roster. Butch Jones decided they weren't ready for right now, and in hindsight neither was Nathan Peterman. And right now is all we get. So we'll see how it looks against South Alabama, and then we'll line up and try to beat Georgia with the quarterback that gives us the best chance to beat Georgia.
At some point I expect we'll cross that line from Justin Worley to a freshman. That point wasn't today, and there's no guarantee it'll be next week or the week after. The longer it takes, I'm sure the more frustration will grow. But there are no simple answers right now and nothing will come easy for Tennessee's offense.
Whoever it ends up being, I hope we can find a way to stop shooting ourselves in the foot and take advantage of every opportunity we get. There's still a ton of football to be played in 2013, and I did like the fight our team showed to the end today. We may have missed an opportunity at Florida, but if this team continues to improve on both sides of the ball, we can still end up calling Butch's first season a successful one. Whether that's through Worley's game management or a freshman emerging? Only time will tell.