Noise at Bristol Motor Speedway - at least for 22 football players instead of 40 cars on the track - goes up and out. Instead of 156,990 creating the kind of sound and fury 102,455 create in Neyland’s architecture, much of the volume last night was lifted to Colossus and the heavens.
The heavens is where many of us were looking when Travon McMillian went 69 yards late in the first quarter to put Virginia Tech up 14-0, finding plenty of open air of his own. The question was general - “Why are we so bad?!” - but the feeling was more specific.
Butch Jones has won some important and memorable games in his three years, most notably South Carolina in 2013, 2014, and Georgia last year. But those three wins came after the Vols had already lost three, five, and three games. They were critical and necessary in moving Tennessee from point A to B to C under Jones’ watch. But they all came after the Vols had already missed the chance (usually as an underdog) to announce their presence, their return to the college football world. On the biggest stages they’ve seen under Butch Jones, Tennessee had specialized in heartbreak against Georgia in 2013, Georgia and Florida in 2014, and the Oklahoma/Florida/Alabama triumvirate last year.
In some ways the stage won’t get any bigger than it was last night. And in the first quarter, Tennessee having stage fright was the best of all possible options in your head. The Hokies nickel-and-dimed their way to a 13-play drive ending in a missed field goal, converted two third downs on an eight-play touchdown drive, then hit McMillian’s play for another score. At that point the Vols had gone three-and-out twice, then followed up with one 17-yard run by Jalen Hurd and another swift three-plays-and-punt sequence, ending with a declined holding call on Coleman Thomas that moved Dylan Wiesman to center, Jack Jones into the game at right guard, and Sheriron Jones to the sideline spotlight.
And then, from the heavens and/or the Hokies, a gift. Jerod Evans fumbled and the Vols pounced. Josh Dobbs hit Jauan Jennings on the fade for a touchdown on the very next play.
The Hokies would be generous the rest of the night, so much so we can’t really say too much about Tennessee’s performance. Last year the Vols curtailed their need for explosive plays by dominating field position thanks to excellent special teams work. Last night Tennessee’s average starting field position was their own 43 yard line thanks to Virginia Tech miscues giving the Vols the ball at the VT five, 23, 29, 43, and four yard line throughout the night.
So yes, Tennessee can beat Virginia Tech by 28 minus a garbage time touchdown when the Hokies do that. But one of the most promising actual takeaways from last night came much earlier, with the outcome still much in doubt and the lights still burning bright.
After the fumble and the fade, Tennessee stuffed McMillian on a big 3rd-and-1 to force a punt. The Hokies pinned the Vols at their own 10 yard line. And on the big stage, Tennessee found the big plays we’ve been looking for.
Josh Dobbs had his fingerprints on both. His 40-yard run on the second play of the drive flipped the field and the momentum, reminiscent of some of his best work last year. Two plays later we got an encore of Dobbs-to-Malone on a 38-yard touchdown against single coverage. When it happened last week, it was a giant sigh of relief. When it happened here, a stiff counter-punch to Virginia Tech’s opening shots, it signaled Tennessee’s arrival at Bristol Motor Speedway and prompted some of the fiercest fist pumps and high fives we’ve seen in the orange section in a long time: Nevermind those first quarter worries, the Vols we hoped for are here. It was one of the more satisfying moments we’ve seen in Butch’s tenure.
How much is here worth? You can’t get to the mythical “back” in the eyes of the nation by beating an unranked Virginia Tech team; Tennessee moved up just two spots to #15 in the AP poll. This game in part moved Tennessee from point C to D. But on a bigger stage than any team has ever played on, the Vols took Virginia Tech’s best shot and then overwhelmed it, thanks in part to Virginia Tech’s worst mistakes. We still don’t have enough data to know a whole lot about Team 120. Last night’s game plan looked a lot like the one we saw at Florida last year for what it’s worth. But seeing the Vols find explosiveness within that game plan, not via trick play but excellent execution from its quarterback in one of the game’s most important sequences on college football’s biggest stage? That’s a confidence boost.
Of course, in many ways the stage will only get bigger for Tennessee. But for the first time under Butch Jones, the Vols didn’t wait until October to own the spotlight.