Tennessee is used to blowing teams out, leaving the opposition hopeless early or midway through contest. They’re not used to having to comeback against another offense that hits the ground running.
That’s exactly what the Vols were asked to do against South Carolina on Saturday. The Vols couldn’t answer that call and lost to the Gamecocks 63-38.
It was an odd game to watch. After a season in which the Vols continually displayed their maturity in the face of far different and unique challenges, the Vols looked unready to beat South Carolina, which looked overmatched even when they were trailing.
Tennessee could have been thinking about the College Football Playoff, especially in a day in which every team in the running seemed to have serious struggles, much like the Vols. The Vols did just about everything different than they had throughout this season.
There were dropped passes. There were inaccurate passes. Defensively, the Vols lacked the intensity from their defensive front that seemed more ready to rely on man-to-man matchups than some of the exotic twists, stunts and blitzes that had served them so well in the past. Was defensive coordinator Tim Banks too confident that the Vols could win one-on-one or was he too concerned that his defenders weren’t fully prepared to run multiple plays on defense?
The Vols tried their best to get Cedric Tillman involved, much like they did against Georgia. However, Tennessee’s offense just doesn’t seem to have the same flow as it did when Tillman was on the sideline, as he was last week against Missouri for precautionary reasons.
Tillman’s return should have been like adding nitrous to a sports car. Instead, it’s been like filling up with diesel fuel.
That’s certainly not say that Tillman is to blame. The Vols made plenty of mistakes. Tillman, until this season, was considered UT’s best receiver. However, his inclusion in the offense needs some tweaking. It felt like Tennessee was trying to force the ball to Tillman against Georgia. We all know how that worked out.
Defensively, the sporadic pressure on South Carolina quarterback Spencer Rattler was a real problem and further revealed what we already knew. Tennessee’s defensive backs are limited, but especially limited when they have to cover SEC receivers for an extended period of time.
The most befuddling aspect of the South Carolina game is that most thought Tennessee would have to lose the game; that South Carolina couldn’t just outright win it, but that’s what happened. The Vols made mistakes, but didn’t make outright disastrous mistakes. The game felt like the Vols were getting killed by paper cuts.
The danger with Tennessee and its mentality is that the “upset” alarms don’t go off quick enough. Most everyone watching thought Tennessee could still come back after the Vols trailed in the first quarter, then again at halftime. Surely, Jalin Hyatt would just put on his “Superman” cape and flip the script. That mentality can get a team in trouble and keep them there. That’s exactly what happened.
Tennessee had a long time to wait to play South Carolina. The Vols, who regularly practice in the morning, had to sit around a hotel room and wait for the 7 p.m. EST kickoff. It’s hard to imagine the Vols weren’t seeing other College Football Playoff contenders bumble along. It hard to imagine the thought process being anything other than a win would put the Vols firmly in the final four. Just any kind of win.
Some thought this kind of game would happen against Kentucky or, maybe, Missouri, that the Vols would lose their edge when they were a favorite instead of an underdog. As it turns out, it took a bit longer for all that to settle in.
There are two ways to look at the South Carolina game from Tennessee’s perspective. First, the Vols weren’t expected to be in any discussion about the College Football Playoff and actually achieve the No. 1 ranking in the nation. Actually making college football’s final four would have been icing on the cake. That’s not the feel right now.
The other perspective, which is going to be the immediate reaction, is that the Vols just suffered their worst loss since the SEC Championship Game in 2001. That was the last time the Vols had a realistic chance to win national championship. The Vols probably won’t have to wait that long again, but those hopes are dashed for now.
This really hurts. I don’t like USC anyway and Rattled is a brat. There, I said it. Now I feel better.
Should feel a bit better tonight…
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