Tennessee more than just a "lucky" team
The Tennessee Volunteers are off to their best start since their 1998 national championship season.
The Vols are 5-0, currently ranked No. 9 in both polls and have outscored their opponents by a combined margin of 111-38 in the second half. Yet there’s a growing perception that Tennessee is a “lucky” team, rather than a good one.
Last week’s 34-31 victory against Georgia didn’t do much to dispel that logic. The Vols allowed a would-be game winning touchdown with 10 seconds remaining before Josh Dobbs connected with Jauan Jennings on a 43-yard Hail Mary pass as time expired.
Dobbs’ fumble and Jalen Hurd’s recovery in the end zone to beat Appalachian State in overtime during a 20-13 win in Week 1 is another factor aiding this perception. You remember, the same game after which the preseason SEC East favorite Vols were deemed as “overrated” for struggling early against a team only three years removed from the FCS.
But let’s not discredit Tennessee for what it is: a good, veteran football team which finally has a bit of luck on its side. The reason the Vols were expected to win the East is because they returned more talent than their rivals.
Butch Jones signed back-to-back top 10 recruiting classes during his first two full seasons in Knoxville and managed to salvage what was left of the 2013 signing class during his first two months. Early in Jones’ tenure, the Vols were forced to play numerous underclassmen, weighing talent over inexperience, including an FBS-leading 23 true freshmen in 2014.
Steadily, the program improved to end its three-year bowl drought in 2014 and post its best finish in eight years in 2015. The Vols ended last season on a six-game winning streak and returned the majority of their starting lineup on both sides of the ball.
So naturally, expectations were high and despite a few hiccups, Tennessee has lived up to them. With wins against Florida and Georgia, the Vols are on pace to win the SEC East title, even as projected underdogs in upcoming games against Texas A&M and Alabama.
There’s no denying there’s a legit argument to classify them as lucky, but they’re also more talented and experienced. The Vols have lacked all three attributes during their recent string of bad seasons.
Aside from coaching negligence during the Derek Dooley era, there is also an obvious talent disparity. Tennessee was consistently out-recruited by its biggest rivals prior to Jones’ arrival.
The luck factor is also something that has changed drastically. During their struggles, the Vols never seemed to catch a break. Several games come to mind, including the LSU and UNC losses in 2010. But the team shouldn’t be faulted for suddenly having some good fortune.
Every great football team needs to have a bit of luck on its side. There will be close games in which a team needs a few good bounces in its favor to keep a winning streak alive, especially one as long as the Vols’ current 11-game streak.
That wasn’t an exception during Tennessee’s last national championship season. Two crucial wins against Syracuse and Arkansas may have never happened without a few lucky bounces.
But the Vols aren’t the only team who made the most of good fortune. Several of Auburn’s biggest wins during its 2013 season — which resulted in an SEC championship and BCS National Championship Game appearance — were the result of lucky plays.
Still, Tennessee’s Hail Mary last weekend was a bit different than Auburn’s tipped touchdown against Georgia or “Kick Six” against Alabama. That was more so a quarterback putting the football in a spot for his No. 1 wide receiver to out-jump double coverage and make a clean snag.
Did it involve luck? Sure. But it arguably had more to do with Dobbs’ cannon arm and Jennings’ freakish athletic ability and tenacity.
Then again, several avoidable lapses in Saturday’s game put the Vols in that position. Hurd’s first-quarter fumble on the 1-yard line and Malik Foreman’s hesitant coverage on Jacob Eason’s late touchdown pass were two factors that led to the necessary Hail Mary attempt.
That’s just football. No team will ever be perfect, and sometimes you need some good fortune to outweigh the bad. Tennessee shouldn’t be chastised for that and deserves some recognition for being the best team in the SEC East through its first five games.
This isn’t the same team that fumbled through the Dooley era or earned “moral victories” early in Jones’ tenure. The Vols may really be a “team of destiny” if they can keep good fortune on their side and play up to their full potential.
Tennessee’s game against Texas A&M this weekend will be a big factor in how its perceived nationally. The Aggies also enter with a 5-0 record and have looked better during the second half of their games as well.
A victory against A&M should silence the criticism of the Vols being more “lucky” than they are good. But there shouldn’t be much argument that Tennessee is both, which is exactly what it needs to be to make a serious run in the SEC.