Vols Nation wants a winner. It’s desperate for one. There are fans from Memphis to Kingsport that believe this is the season the SEC crown finally comes back to Tennessee. Or at least there were fans who believed before Thursday night.
What we saw in the opener against Appalachian State was a superior team, from a superior conference, playing inferior football for most of the game. We saw a Vols squad with Rocky Top High expectations look like an FCS team struggling to find its way. We saw a program who is on the doorstep nearly have the door slammed on its fingers.
Tennessee found a way to win, by virtue of a 67-yard bomb in the fourth quarter, a fumble into the end zone for an OT touchdown, and a batted ball on 4th-and-5 to seal it. But it sure didn’t feel like a victory. No one much felt like singing Rocky Top walking out of Neyland.
The Vols waltzed into this season with some swagger, understandably so. They had been placed in the preseason top 10, and picked by many as the darling of the SEC East. There hasn’t been a UT preseason with huge expectations like this since Dawson’s Creek was on the air. Florida probably played over its heads last year, Georgia is breaking in a new coach, and no one believes South Carolina, Mizzou, Kentucky or Vandy are all that good. So the balanced Vols, a team that won its final five games of the regular season and then pounded Northwestern in the Outback Bowl, should push around the rest of the division, right?
Well, if that’s going to happen Josh Dobbs must play like a totally different quarterback than we saw Thursday. He hadn’t hit the century mark in total yards before he connected on the deep score to Josh Malone. He struggled to move the ball all night against a defense that moved up to FBS about 5 minutes ago. And the Vols coaching staff called just one pass play for Dobbs on the final scoring drive in OT. Not exactly the type of signal-caller stuff that will lead you to Atlanta.
It’s been a long time since the SEC crown resided in Knoxville. Nearly 20 years ago Tee Martin and Philip Fulmer marched to one of the most magical and improbable seasons in program history. But that’s centuries in college years, and feels especially long ago in Tennessee. There was the Lane Kiffin Karnival and the Derek Dooley Debacle and a lot of embarrassments that Vols fans would rather forget. Vols fans put 100,000 fans inside a stadium on Saturdays, sing their lungs out even after field goals, and believe every year. They’ve wanted this feeling back for awhile.
Too bad the team didn’t want it as badly Thursday. Butch Jones has recruited well, but he’s also coached just badly enough to lose too many close games. He’s orchestrated too many late lost leads, and against Appalachian State there’s no reason his top-10 team should have needed OT to survive. The Mountaineers are a very good team, going 11-2 and beating Ohio in the Camellia Bowl last year. But a top 10 squad in their own house needs to assert its dominance from the opening kick in a game like last night.
Vols fans want me to believe. And heck, I’d like to. But Thursday didn’t help me gain any confidence in a program some people are simply handing the SEC East to. A four-game stretch in a few weeks includes Florida, Georgia, A&M and Alabama. I figured that would test the Vols mightily. Little did I know they’d be tested way earlier than that.