Hayes: Vols' path to Playoff? Light up the scoreboard
Before we go down the road of how Tennessee reaches the Playoff, we have to set ground rules.
1. There are no rules.
2. See, Rule 1.
Anyone who says Tennessee is in good position, or a lock if it wins out, or there’s no way the Playoff selection committee can overlook the Vols’ résumé, clearly hasn’t been following the previous 8 years.
The Playoff race is as much a beauty pageant as it is a demolition derby — and there is only 1 overriding theme.
When in doubt, run it up.
“What the scoreboard ultimately ends up being, and what people down the line may judge us for, we are out of control of some of those things,” Tennessee coach Josh Heupel said.
That’s not entirely accurate. Tennessee’s Blur Ball offense is most certainly in control of the scoreboard, and there’s recent history to back up the impact of running it up.
Exhibit A: Ohio State, circa 2016.
The Buckeyes lost to Penn State in the regular season, and Penn State won the Big Ten championship. Yet 1-loss Ohio State made the Playoff, and 2-loss Penn State didn’t.
What made Ohio State so attractive, you ask?
Sports betting in Tennessee officially launched on November 1, 2020, and many of the largest sportsbooks are live and operating in the volunteer state. Tennessee is only one of a handful of SEC football states with legalized sports betting.
It might have had something to do with a 62-3 win over No. 10 Nebraska in November, and another 62-3 win over Maryland a week later. And a thrilling double OT win over Michigan on the last week of the regular season.
Or how about Ohio State in 2014? The Buckeyes began the year with a 14-point home loss to Virginia Tech, but beat Michigan 42-28 in the last week of the regular season, then pounded Wisconsin 59-0 in the Big Ten Championship Game.
On that same championship weekend, TCU entered the day No. 3 in the Playoff poll but was jumped by Ohio State — despite beating Iowa State 55-3 to win a share of the Big 12 title.
So don’t believe there’s nothing that can be done. More times than not, sexy wins.
If that means running up the score, get ready, South Carolina. Tennessee has a job to do, just like it did last week in a 66-24 whitewash of Missouri.
That’s why Heisman Trophy candidate Hendon Hooker was throwing in the 4th quarter with a comfortable 49-24 lead. Why backup quarterback Joe Milton kept chucking it when he got in the game — until the Vols reached 66 with 36 seconds remaining in the game.
Let me say that again: with 36 seconds remaining in the game.
Heupel has seen this before. He was the quarterbacks coach at Oklahoma in 2008, when the Sooners, Texas and Texas Tech all finished with 11-1 records and none had the tiebreaker.
The BCS — remember that contraption? — had to determine who would play in the Big 12 Championship Game, with the winner moving on to the BCS Championship Game. Oklahoma lost by 10 to Texas in October, and over the last 5 games of the regular season scored 58, 62, 66, 65 and 61 points.
The Sooners were throwing deep into the 4th quarter every game. Guess which team the BCS computers magically spit out to play in the Big 12 Championship Game?
The team that lost to Texas 6 weeks earlier.
But because OU beat the brakes off every opponent after that — including top-15 common opponents Texas Tech and Oklahoma State — the Sooners were at front of mind in prisoner-of-the-moment polls. The 10-point loss to Texas may as well have been 2 years earlier.
Knowing that, and knowing that Heupel has clearly made the decision to go scorched earth on 3 of the SEC’s lower division teams, expect Hooker to be playing (and throwing) well into the 4th quarter this weekend at South Carolina and next week at Vanderbilt.
When Milton finally enters the game, he’ll be chucking it, too.
Not because they don’t trust their defense, or because backups deserve to play the offense how it’s run, too. But because the best way to earn eye test points is to stroll down the catwalk like every other team — but look prettier than everyone else with a wart (see: a loss) to hide.
In 3 weeks, all warts will be laid bare. Tennessee must be playing so well, and ringing up ridiculous offensive numbers, that the Playoff committee might just look at the Georgia loss as an anomaly — a bad day, in bad weather, for a team that has played nearly flawless the remainder of the season.
Tennessee must be playing at such a high level, the Playoff committee would rather choose a team that didn’t win its own division, much less conference championship, over a 1-loss Power 5 team that won its conference (see: USC and Clemson/North Carolina).
The Vols can’t hope for losses from outside their orbit in the last 3 weeks. They can only leave no doubt when on the field.
The magic number may just be 50 — or 50 points per game average for the season. To get there, Tennessee needs 126 points.
The Vols got 66 last week on one of the SEC’s best defenses. Heaven help South Carolina and Vanderbilt
“The statement for us is we’re a good football team playing good football,” Heupel said.
When in doubt, run it up.