Lucky and good: Tennessee rediscovers magic mojo of 1998
It’s been a few years ago now, but the fall that I turned 18, Tennessee football literally got every break in the world. When they went to overtime with Florida, Gator kicker Collins Cooper hooked a game-extending field goal try wide left. With Arkansas in control and threatening to ruin their season, Razorback QB Clint Stoerner simply laid the ball on the ground for the Vols to recover — and take the game. When Tennessee capped that magical 1998 season with a win over Florida State in the Fiesta Bowl, there were plenty of Vol haters who went there — they were just lucky, people said.
And maybe they were. Cooper’s kick was relatively routine. Stoerner was a decent player who never made the type of mental mistake he did against UT. For that matter, the Vols needed a last play field goal to win the season opener against Syracuse. So maybe they were lucky.
Or maybe luck was nothing more than skill hardened by a determination to not lose.
Florida had beaten Tennessee time and again, and that bit of luck had as much to do with the stiffening of backs on the Vol defense as it did with Cooper’s shanked kick. Stoerner’s fumble never would have meant anything if Tennessee hadn’t gamely fought back from a 21-3 first half deficit to be in position to win the game.
Over the course of a game or a season, every team, even the worst, gets bounces and breaks. The successful teams are the ones who turn those opportunities into points and wins. And if that makes them lucky, then so be it.
But as quickly as luck found the Vols, it drifted away. Maybe it was LSU stealing back the 2007 SEC title game. Or those same Tigers beating the Vols after the clock had run out in Death Valley on an untimed down. Or North Carolina stealing a Peach Bowl with a miracle finish. Or Florida. Florida. Florida again. A catch that wasn’t a catch in 2000. A sideline grab on 4th-and-forever in 2015. And a hundred plays in between. Suddenly, Tennessee was decided unlucky.
Or maybe the Vols were just cashing up all their karmic chips for 2016. Tennessee is 5-0, which was not entirely unexpected. The Vols were the preseason favorites to win the SEC East. But what is unexpected is that UT has trailed 13-3, 14-0, 17-0, and 21-0 in four of those five games. And has somehow won them all. Admittedly, the comeback from 21-0 to batter the Gators and end a drastic losing streak was impressive. But it was child’s play compared to the Georgia game.
When defensive end Corey Vereen recovered a Jacob Eason fumble in the end zone late in the fourth quarter to give Tennessee its first lead of the day, it felt like maybe it was just Tennessee’s day.
When the Vol defenders let UGA receiver Riley Ridley beat them for a 47 yard bomb with just 10 seconds on the game clock, instead, the bad luck blues were back. As Tennessee prepared for one final desperate pass from the UGA 43 yard line, I shook my head at the radio.
“Here’s where we find out if Butch Jones has a leprechaun up his butt,” I told my wife.
And maybe he does. Or maybe he’s just spent the last four seasons building Tennessee back into a team of top-level talent with the competitive fire to take the best of what the SEC deals out — last second bombs and all — and just bounce back.
Jones’ team is talented, but they’re oddly disciplined under fire — the kind of discipline that is formed by having been here before, and having the results go again you more often than not.
Saturday, Tennessee wouldn’t lose, they would just keep rewriting the script until they had the last word.
This 2016 miracle run is only five games. Tennessee really has to tighten up and not spot a 14 to 21 point advantage at Texas A&M next week, and certainly not to Alabama the following week.
Luck will only carry so far. But where skill meets luck, together they travel to the land of football dreams. So once again, people are calling Tennessee lucky.
Go ahead, the Vols would love to just ride luck to another national title. Stranger things have happened.