Tennessee football: Vols aren't here to make friends
Things were not going according to plan for the Tennessee Volunteers.
With 8:55 left in the 3rd quarter, the visiting Missouri Tigers had cut into the Vols’ lead, trailing only 28-24. Mizzou’s Brady Cook was bringing back memories of Matt Mauck with multiple successful QB draws. A sellout crowd of 101,915 that had been raucous was now a bit nervous.
In years past, Tennessee would have lost a game like this one, or maybe would have had to grind its way to a tense victory.
But those days are over.
Over the next 7 minutes and 36 seconds, the Vols scored 3 TDs. They added 17 points in the 4th quarter to make it 38 unanswered on their way to a 66-24 victory.
This is what good football teams do. When an inferior opponent starts to feel like it has a chance to win, you take its will.
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.
That’s what Tennessee did Saturday afternoon.
There was a lot made of what occurred at the end of the game. With the Vols leading by 35 and the game long since decided, backup QB Joe Milton threw a 58-yard pass to 2nd-string receiver Squirrel White. It led to a garbage-time TD in the final minute.
There was a lot of pearl clutching from the same folks who want home run hitters to put their heads down and silently jog to 1st base after a 500-foot blast. They didn’t want to see Tennessee go full 1988 Miami Hurricanes against Mizzou.
So why did that happen? One theory is that this was a form of payback. A few months ago, Missouri head coach Eli Drinkwitz took jabs at UT’s NCAA investigation troubles. Some made the connection that this was Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel rubbing it in. But that doesn’t seem to be Heupel’s method of operation.
I think there were other reasons for the violation of the unwritten rules. Milton could be called on at some point if Hendon Hooker were unable to play, and having some game reps in an offense that isn’t afraid to throw deep is not a bad thing. Tennessee had Milton do the same thing at the end of the Ball State, Akron and UT Martin games, so this shouldn’t have come as a big surprise.
But to me, the main reason is that the Vols are trying to send a message to the College Football Playoff committee. Missouri headed to Neyland Stadium as the 13th-ranked defense in the nation, allowing just more than 300 yards per game. Tennessee rolled up 724 yards.
Following the loss to Georgia, the Vols fell from 1st to 5th in the CFP rankings. Tennessee went from being in control of its own destiny to being a team that was thrown into a pile of Playoff hopefuls.
During the week, Tennessee’s resume was being compared to teams like Oregon. ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit pushed the narrative that Oregon’s 46-point loss to Georgia in Atlanta back in September and the Vols’ 14-point loss in Athens were basically the same. That would make things easier for a 12-1 Pac 12 champion Oregon to get the playoff nod over an 11-1 Tennessee team, despite the Vols having a tougher schedule, better victories and a more competitive performance against the same opponent.
As it turns out, Oregon won’t be in that mix following its loss to Washington, but the message was loud and clear. By no means has Tennessee secured a spot in the Playoff.
The Vols can’t affect what TCU or Southern Cal does, but they can be in charge of their own margin of victory. Back in the BCS era, you’d see teams try to run up the score when that mattered to the computers. While the decimal point is no longer a factor, Tennessee must continue to prove its worth every time out.
This is a historically good Tennessee team, one that currently leads the nation in both scoring and total yardage per game. Right now, it has wins over 2 teams in the CFP top 10 (LSU, Alabama) and what would be considered the best loss (Georgia).
If Tennessee earns a spot in the Playoff, it would be one of the most remarkable turnarounds in the history of college football.
If some feelings get hurt on the way to the national semifinals, so be it.