Beating Florida and Georgia in the same season for the first time since 2004 created a golden opportunity in the SEC East, a division the Vols haven’t won since 2007. It also created the opportunity for the kind of loss we haven’t seen since far before then - the “we have something to lose and lost it as a significant favorite” loss - and unfortunately the Vols chose door number two.
Butch Jones has been no stranger to heartbreak at Tennessee, but none of his toughest losses carried such tangible consequences as we saw and felt Saturday night, and none of his losses period have come to a team as far down the totem pole as this year’s South Carolina squad. You have to go back a ways in the “we blew it” category, in part because the Vols haven’t had anything to blow in so long. I feel the 2011 Kentucky comparison is unfair, both because this South Carolina team wasn’t nearly that bad and because this Tennessee team was playing for far more than bowl eligibility. Though Florida was in first place, a glance at both schedules suggested Tennessee was the favorite, and the Vols haven’t cost themselves a trip to Atlanta with a mid-to-late-season loss since 1992 on another long day in Columbia. And the Vols haven’t really cost themselves anything of significance beyond bowl eligibility past the Alabama game since 2001.
So yes, this one hurts on a number of levels and in a number of ways we haven’t felt in a long time. As such there’s plenty of reaction, over and appropriate, and plenty to talk about. Where should we start?
On defense, the conversation still starts and ends here for me. There are tendencies we can still discuss, but at the end of the day we’re still talking about what Bob Shoop is doing with backup linebackers, 40% of the starting secondary, and options I’m not even sure how to define beyond Kendal Vickers at defensive tackle. If you are on campus and weigh 225+, stop by the complex this week.
And so it goes. Elliott Berry gets attacked at the end of the Texas A&M game. Baylen Buchanan gets thrown on and sometimes finds his best option is to hold. Somebody - Kyle Phillips, Quay Picou, somebody - is going to line up at defensive tackle down the stretch, and we’ll probably get run on some.
It’s been a historic, freaky, unfortunate year for injuries, the nature of which made us praise what this team did against, Florida, Georgia, and Texas A&M even more, and made me write off most of what happened against Alabama. It’s the kind of year where hearts are extra blessed and fans are more inclined to give grace and fall in love with the team’s effort.
We’ll get to perceptions about effort in a minute. But the issue with that kind of injury narrative against South Carolina is, to the best of my knowledge, we can’t really use it on the offensive side of the ball.
Alvin Kamara’s absence doesn’t help, and whatever is going on with Jalen Hurd led to 16 yards on eight carries. But the best thing about Tennessee’s offense on Saturday was John Kelly: 14 carries for 94 yards. And Kelly was the only place the Vols were missing a starter on offense. The Vols’ non-hand-it-to-Kelly offense picked up 203 yards on 50 plays.
Injuries are still the story on defense. But they don’t seem to explain much on offense.
I’m putting these together because my answer, or lack thereof, is the same: I have no idea what’s going on.
“DeBord/Dobbs sucks,” is stupid and lazy. If you want to use what’s happened this year, you have to use all of it. We have to consider the first and second quarter against Virginia Tech, the first and second half against Florida, both Appalachian State and Texas A&M. Tennessee is somehow the same team that put 498 yards and 6.3 yards per play on the second best defense in the nation from Florida, then was worse against South Carolina than every other team on their schedule since Vanderbilt in the opener. This means Mississippi State, East Carolina, Kentucky, and UMass all had significantly more success against the Gamecock defense than Tennessee.
The Vols did whatever they wanted against Texas A&M, 6.9 yards per play and almost 700 yards. Then they were a shell of themselves in a number of ways against Alabama. And then this happened Saturday night. I have no idea.
Josh Dobbs against Florida, Georgia, and Texas A&M: 60 of 105 (57.1%), 947 yards, nine yards per attempt (!), eight touchdowns, and explosive plays galore. Before the final 35 seconds yesterday with Carolina in softer coverage, Dobbs was 10 of 23 for 120 yards.
The only difference here might be Kamara, who was Dobbs’ second-favorite target in the passing game. John Kelly caught only one pass for 17 yards, Hurd caught zero. But if your whole offense falls apart because you can’t/don’t throw to a running back, you’ve got bigger problems.
Someone smarter than me will have to figure out why these Vols can be so good and so bad offensively. That list includes Josh Dobbs, who has five or six starts left in his Tennessee career. Our senior quarterback has been part of some incredible memories and played at times this season at an extraordinarily high level. Against South Carolina he looked like a freshman. I don’t know.
I’m a little less concerned about the penalties than many seem to be, but that’s only because of what we’re asking of backups in the secondary. We’re going to get some defensive holding and pass interference calls.
I’m typing this at 11:45 PM ET on a night when things like this apparently need to be tweeted:
Despite rumors, Jalen Hurd and Jonathan Kongbo have not quit tennessee team, source said.— Jimmy Hyams (@JimmyHyams) October 31, 2016
This comes around 24 hours after Butch Jones, for the first time to my recollection, used words like lethargic and disinterested to describe his team.
I’m not in the locker room or the press conferences; I don’t know these kids or these coaches. There seem to be some personality and chemistry issues here but I’m the wrong person to describe them in detail. But I do know a team with this much talent and this many expectations can be harder to coach. I do know this team had plenty of confidence coming into the year, then earned plenty more in the month of September. I know they and all of us could buy into “this is our year” before the hail mary cemented the idea, and then everything that happened against Texas A&M doubled-down on it until the very last play.
And to go from all of that to getting blown out by Alabama and thinking the dreams you dreamed for this season were dead or dying? It’s tough. The bye week clearly didn’t help that.
Butch Jones has been really good at getting his team to bounce back from adversity in the past, most notably last season after a 2-3 start. This year has been a new experience for him in some ways I’m sure; we’ve noted almost every week on our podcast how Jones is a tweaker and I’m sure he’s learning on the fly how to make the necessary adjustment here. Hopefully he will figure it out in time for Saturday’s loss to be the season’s last.
On Florida Losing Twice
What’s frustrating about this in the long run: Tennessee has now put the definition of success for Team 120 in someone else’s hands.
Here’s the thing: if Florida didn’t lose another game, this team still had the chance to be a definitive success in their own hands. 10-2 and not in Atlanta would have been frustrating, and might have cooled some of our warm fuzzies about the Texas A&M game. But 10-2 Tennessee was still going to the Cotton, Orange, or Sugar Bowl to play in a huge game. It would have still easily been the best year around these parts since at least 2004 if not 2001. It would have been an unlucky team, in so many ways, but one unanimously praised.
Now, with the rise of Auburn and LSU, it sure feels like the only way the Vols are going to a New Year’s Six bowl is by winning the SEC. The Citrus Bowl looks like the best the Vols can do without some help from Florida. And the Citrus Bowl at the end of a 9-3 year would still be the best the Vols have done in nine seasons. But for the second year in a row, it would include a “Yeah, but...” vibe.
Florida might lose twice. Any Tennessee team that wins the SEC East had a good year for my money and history’s too. But the lasting narrative of Team 120 sure feels like it’s tied directly to Florida’s fate now, which is certainly frustrating given what the Vols did to the Gators.
It will be an interesting week to play an FCS foe. By next Sunday we’ll see if Arkansas has started Florida down that path, and we’ll learn what buttons Butch Jones will push next with this fascinating, frustrating, striving-and-struggling-to-be-good football team.