Tennessee's season opener didn't go quite as smoothly as expected, with the Vols coming back from a 13-3 halftime deficit against a surprisingly frightening Appalachian State squad to escape 20-13 in overtime at Neyland Stadium Thursday night. Since then, we've had a long weekend to digest last Thursday's happenings and observe team after team after team struggle unexpectedly in their openers. So, with four days separation from the heat of the moment, what looked better than last time we'd seen Tennessee, what looked worse, and what stayed the same?
- Defense stepping up in the clutch. There were times Thursday where it seemed as though the defense was in over their heads against a Mountaineers attack that seemed tailor-made to beat it. But the most important thing is the scoreboard, and after allowing a score off a short field and a sustained second-quarter drive, the Vols shut out the App State offense for seven possessions in a row to end the game. On four of those seven, the Mountaineers couldn't even manage a first down. Yes, Appalachian State did come dangerously close to field goal range at the end of the fourth quarter--bringing back memories of so many late collapses in the last three years--and perhaps the Vols were lucky to face an opponent that made clock management mistakes late in the game, but the Vols defense also came up with a big tackle for loss on the second-to-last play of regulation that kept the Mountaineers out of field goal range and kept the clock moving. There might've been hiccups early, but the defense ultimately did their jobs in the clutch, something we couldn't say so many times in 2015.
- A new question #1. Our offseason ten questions series featured a lot of questions that we thought we could answer. We weren't relying on radical offseason transformations or newcomers dominating from the get-go--just normal, positive progression. But after one week, it seems like everything boils down to one question: wake-up call or harbinger? We will go into more detail in the "Trending Down" section, but suffice to say that Tennessee's week one performance is not enough to put them in Atlanta, let alone playoff conversations. But was week one just an unfocused team reading too many of their own press-clippings and running into a Sun Belt opponent that was unusually equipped to make them pay for being lackadaisical? Or was it warning of what is to come this season, a display to all the world of the myriad chinks in Tennessee's armor? Only time will tell, and until it does, this will be the question pressing on the minds of the Volunteer faithful.
- Luck. The Vols put the ball on the ground four times--including once in overtime on the goal line--and only lost it once. The game-winning touchdown came on a fumble recovery in the end zone. Tennessee was able to force overtime in large part because their opponents missed a field goal and an extra point. The last few years have seen the Vols on the wrong end of so many games where one inch or odd bounce of the ball made all the difference. This time, it went Tennessee's way.
- Scoring without explosive plays. Just before the season kicked off, we talked about how last year's Tennessee offense was efficient despite a troubling lack of explosive plays. It worked well enough to lead the Vols to a nine-win season, but the stats show that it is hard to rely on slow, methodical drives. Would Tennessee generate enough explosive plays, we asked, to be productive even in the face of the negative plays that can stall a drive? After one game, that question looks more important than ever. Last season, the Vols were fairly efficient without being explosive. Against Appalachian State, the Vols continued not being explosive--they had no run plays of 15+ yards and just one pass play of 20+--but they weren't able to score in spite of it. Tennessee managed just one touchdown in regulation, and it came on the Vols' only explosive play. On Tennessee's nine regulation drives without an explosive play, they scored just six points. To be an elite offense, you need both explosion and efficiency. Last year, the Vols had one. This week, the Vols had neither.
- Josh Dobbs. Dobbs hasn't exactly been a consistent threat through the air during his Tennessee career, and this game may not even approach the worst of his career, but it's fair to say he was a major part of the problem. He threw one nice deep ball that Josh Malone turned into the Vols' sole regulation touchdown, but he averaged less than 4.5 yards per attempt on the remaining 28 passes and made enough ill-advised throws that he was probably lucky to only be picked off once. Often, when Dobbs is having a bad day passing the ball (see: 2015 Florida), he can make up for it with his legs. Thursday? A six-yard third-down scamper in overtime was key to Tennessee's escape, but a 13-yard carry early in the third quarter was Dobbs' only successful rushing attempt in regulation. Tennessee doesn't win without Dobbs' two key plays, but for most of the game, Dobbs was more a part of the problem than of the solution.
- The offensive line. Tennessee had a massive size advantage in the trenches, so you'll be forgiven for thinking that the Vols didn't need a big day from Dobbs because they could simply bludgeon the Mountaineers defense with a steady dose of Jalen Hurd. But that's not exactly how it happened. The Vols ran for 3.0 yards per carry (including lost yardage from two sacks). Throw in several penalties on the offensive line and an errant snap, and the boys up front had a day to forget. The offensive line was a clear point of improvement in 2015, with the emergence of Coleman Thomas, Dylan Wiesman, and Brett Kendrick as reliable starters alongside a maturing Jashon Robertson. Yes, the 2016 Vols were replacing left tackle Kyler Kerbyson with a redshirt freshmen, but with four starters remaining, they were expected to take another step forward. Instead? The line looked a lot more like the 2014 unit than the 2015 edition. And the problem wasn't left tackle. It was everything. The line looked nothing like the known (and competent) unit they were thought to be going into the season and everything like an albatross around the neck of the offense. If there's one unit that needs to make the biggest transformation from week one to week two, it's this one.
- Mike DeBord's offense. We've covered the quarterback and the line, so why not just hit the whole thing? The Tennessee offense was terrible. They weren't efficient, they weren't explosive, they couldn't run, and they couldn't pass. And with nine starters returning from an offense that wasn't terrible last season, the ultimate blame has to fall on the coaching. The two units that struggled most--quarterback and offensive line--are the ones with which DeBord works most closely. And the plan of attack was predictable and ineffective, from the off-tackle carries on first down to the screen passes on third. Vols fans had been questioning DeBord as OC from 2008 to last week. This game showed why.
- The Vols hype train. Going into the season, Tennessee was the odds-on favorite to win the East, a consensus top ten team, and considered a threat to make the playoff. Let's just say, after a second-half comeback as a 20-point favorite, the bandwagon is a lot lighter.
- The SEC hype train. But Tennessee wasn't alone in their week one struggles. Alabama is frightening. We knew that. But Florida struggled to put away a UMass team that isn't in the same league as App State, Arkansas barely squeaked by Louisiana Tech, Missouri got handled easily by West Virginia, and Mississippi State and Kentucky were both upset by mid-major opponents. Future Tennessee opponents Georgia and Texas A&M picked up quality wins, but the Vols' struggles weren't an outlier in week one.
- Responding to adversity. The fans are bad at this, the coaches are bad at this, the team is bad at this. Whenever something goes wrong, it seems as though we all just start to expect everything to go wrong. The Florida games in 2014 and 2015 are perhaps the clearest examples, although those in the crowd for the 2015 Arkansas game will tell you the spirit of resignation at Neyland on that night was as bad as ever. But it's been a consistent problem since the 2010 team "went 6-2 in games that we won," and if week one is any indication, an offseason spent believing that Tennessee is a legit top ten team hasn't solved it. The Tennessee defense easily forced a three-and-out on the opening possession, and the offense marched down the field without too much difficulty on their own opening possession. Nothing indicated that the Vols had something to fear. Yet after a fumbled punt return, a controversial incomplete ruling in the end zone, an a targeting ejection for Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Tennessee's spirits sank. Reports during the game said the Vols were talking about those three plays for the entire rest of the half, and Butch Jones' halftime interview included a lament that it hadn't been a good night. Tennessee does not have a snap-and-clear mentality. They do not move on after mistakes. And if they want this season to be anything like it was supposed to be, they need to.
- Aaron Medley picks up where he left off. Medley was horrendous for the first half of his sophomore season, opening with a missed chip shot against Bowling Green and then missing a series of (mostly long) kicks in every single Vols loss, culminating in three misses in a 19-14 loss to Alabama. And then, all of a sudden, he was good, turning in an almost perfect 11/12 performance (including 4/4 from 40+ yards) during Tennessee's five-game season-ending winning streak. The Vols didn't need him to hit 50-yarders against Appalachian State, but they did need him to be perfect. They needed late-season Medley, and they got it, with a perfect 2/2 mark on field goals and 2/2 on PAT attempts to help the team survive by the narrowest of margins. When everyone else was sloppy, Medley's season opener was sharp.