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The Balance Beam

Tennessee was sloppy but managed to stay upright in an overtime win against Appalachian State. What is their biggest question mark going forward?

NCAA Football: Appalachian State at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

I am convinced three-fourths of planet earth now knows yesterday was nine years to the day of Appalachian State’s win at Michigan. Not long into the night I was reminded of eight years to the day: Tennessee at UCLA, the last time the Vols lost a season opener. A summer of expectation, a new and exciting coordinator who would take us to new and exciting heights, and everything you spend all those days waiting for evaporating into thin air.

One of the biggest differences between then and now in my opinion is the collective confidence level of Tennessee football. You never really thought we would lose to UCLA until we did. If you’re honest, you probably thought we would lose at more than a couple of junctures last night.

Our seats are just above the visiting fans in the lower level, which has its blessings and curses. Last night a blessing I had not seen in my 34 years took place: about a dozen of Appalachian State’s players, in the immediate aftermath of absolute heartbreak, still ran over to their fans to shake hands and be greeted with a standing ovation. They deserved it.

This loss for Appalachian State looked like what we did at Florida last year in so many ways, and as I’d rank that one as one of the very worst of my lifetime I truly sympathize with the Mountaineers this morning. A game they should have won got away with every level having the unfortunate opportunity to look themselves in the mirror and know it could have been different. If a 42-yard field goal had split the uprights. If a defender falls on an end zone overtime fumble. If the coaching staff and the offense better handle the sequence at the end of regulation that will haunt them in ways that I hope don’t define their season but know it might because it just happened to us last year.

In each of those moments, Tennessee deserves some credit too. The defense turned 1st and 10 at the Tennessee 28 into 4th and 7 at the 25 before the missed field goal, scoring tackles for loss on first and third down. Their blowing up App State’s 2nd and 1 pass with 21 seconds left for a four yard loss set up the escape at the end of regulation, an enormous play. And Jalen Hurd, he of a rugged 110 yards on 28 carries, getting on top of that football in the end zone in overtime.

Let’s be careful to give Appalachian State as much credit as they deserve, for last night and last year, and not err too far either way. This was a team Tennessee was favored to beat by 20, not 40. Programs accustomed to winning and full of players who did so 11 times last year don’t lack confidence. I didn’t see any of them last year until the Camellia Bowl, but if that is in fact how they run their offense every week as Scott Satterfield said in the postgame, they do it very well and it’s not easy to handle. They got Tennessee out of their element, slowed the game down, forced the Vols to play more base personnel and then to do so without Jalen Reeves-Maybin, and used plenty of misdirection to counter an aggressive defense.

For this reason I’m not really worried about the defense. App State’s points came on a 36-yard drive and a tip-of-the-cap play to Marcus Cox. At the end of the night they averaged 4.28 yards per carry; only Arkansas State held them to fewer yards per carry last year and only Clemson held them to fewer yards per play overall. Tennessee didn’t get any sacks largely because Appalachian State didn’t give Taylor Lamb the opportunity to be sacked.

The morning after I’m feeling pretty good about the defense. The hangover from the offense remains.

Count me in with all of those who feel offensive line play is question number one walking away from this thing. The Vols were decimal points below three yards per carry; only Oklahoma did that to us last year. Josh Dobbs was sacked twice for -19 yards, leaving him with seven other carries for 15 yards. I keep going back to a stat I first heard Jimmy Hyams use last year: throw out games against Western Carolina and North Texas when the Vols were never really going to run Dobbs to keep him healthy, and Tennessee is now 12-1 when Dobbs runs for 35+ yards and 1-4 when he doesn’t. Appalachian State is now the 1 in 1-4.

We have to be careful not to nitpick everything when there’s only one football to go around, especially in a game when the Vols significantly lost time of possession. (Why don’t we throw it deep more? Why didn’t Kamara get more touches? Why didn’t the freshmen wide receivers get looks? etc.) But “why didn’t Dobbs run more?” is the most pressing of those questions. His nine rushing attempts aren’t that far off the 11.2 he averaged last year, but two of those came on third downs in overtime. When the game was on the line Tennessee still went his way, but he seemed like much less a part of the game plan when his ability to run has been one of the surest predictors of Tennessee’s success.

The Vols slipped on the balance beam a dozen different ways, looked sloppy throughout, had one really good moment (well done, Josh Malone), but generally put together a routine that won’t beat much of anyone. We were fortunate that Appalachian State looked like it was going to come out of Knoxville with the gold but then fell off the beam in the final minutes.

For Tennessee especially confidence must be earned; each team must eventually do so for themselves no matter what the last one did or how many were there for it. The same is true for Neyland Stadium, where the expectation of victory from the Fulmer Era has been replaced with more than half a decade of losing and not enough big wins, not yet, to earn that confidence back. My observation is we are still somewhat of a manic depressive crowd/fan base. There were moments last night when Neyland Stadium was louder than it’s ever been against a non-Power 5 school. And there were moments when Neyland was quieter than it ever should have been against an opponent of this caliber regardless of classification and in situations critical to the outcome. Much of Tennessee’s identity, the reasoning behind that #9 ranking, has been built on great recruiting and near misses. The Vols and we their fans are still learning and earning that sixty minute Saturday confidence. But credit the Vols for not falling off the beam last night.

We’ll certainly do some learning in Bristol; I can assure you Bud Foster was pleased with our offensive line play last night. How much earning Tennessee does will start with them, a group we’ve largely seen perform far better before. Sometimes when you look bad in the opener it’s a sign of what’s to come like 2008. Sometimes you feel like you’re never going to stop anyone again after week one, as in 2007 and 2015, and those particular problems don’t end up in the way of a successful season. The Vols certainly didn’t stick the landing last night. But any landing you can walk away from is a good one as long as there’s still a zero in the loss column.