Rest in peace, 2022 Tennessee Playoff hopes.

You lived a life longer than I could’ve ever imagined. Go figure that you also died in a way that I never could’ve imagined.

A 63-point defensive collapse, an injury to a Heisman Trophy-hopeful quarterback and a field rush.

Just like that, it’s gone.

It doesn’t feel like ’98. It feels like Tennessee got a painful reminder of why it’s so hard to be elite in this sport.

On a day in which every team in the top 5 was involved in a game with a single-digit margin in the second half against an unranked team, Tennessee was the only one who couldn’t come out victorious. Not only did the Vols not rally back from their single-digit deficit; they got the doors blown off by South Carolina in a 63-38 reality check loss.

Losing to Georgia was one thing. After all, that was the defending champs. In Athens.

But losing at South Carolina, AKA the team who didn’t have an offensive touchdown last week, was a different kind of gut punch. Making Spencer Rattler look like Peyton Manning wasn’t supposed to be part of the Vols’ 2022 story. It was supposed to be getting a rematch with Georgia in the first round of the Playoff and letting the chips fall where they may.

Nope. You’re reminded why the Vols haven’t finished the regular season with 1 loss since, well, 1998. You’re reminded that Tennessee is a team with exactly 1 win against an AP top-5 team in the last 17 seasons, and it has just 1 vs. an AP top-10 team in the past 15 seasons.

Let’s call it what it is. Tennessee didn’t handle success well.

It showed up in one of the more hostile atmospheres in the SEC and laid an egg. The hay was already in the barn by the time Hendon Hooker went down. He was a bit off the mark throughout on the road. Even 1 of Hooker’s touchdown passes came on a ball that was tipped at the line of scrimmage. Credit South Carolina for taking its top corner, Cam Smith, and at least somewhat containing Jalin Hyatt. Those big passing plays we’ve seen from Hyatt, Cedric Tillman and Bru McCoy were few and far between.

But yeah, it’s hard to put a 38-point offensive output on Hooker and Co. It was the scrutinized Tennessee defense who laid the biggest leg of all.

Guys ran free, defenders missed tackles in space and above all else, Tennessee’s defense looked 1 step behind all night. Never mind the fact that the Gamecocks were without stud tailback MarShawn Lloyd. Never mind the fact that Rattler had 5 touchdown passes vs. SEC competition all year entering Saturday night. Never mind the fact that no unranked team had scored that many points against a top-5 team since … ever?

Yes, Tennessee missed Jeremy Banks, who Josh Heupel said afterwards was “unavailable.” The Brandon Turnage injury didn’t help, either.

Still, though. Championship-caliber teams find a way to work through those things. Tennessee isn’t on that level.

Maybe we were foolish to think the Vols were ready for that. It was only Year 2 of the Heupel era. Sure, there were more peaks than valleys. It was the No. 1 offense in America. How could we not be a bit intoxicated by it? So what if the defense had been a bit inconsistent? That offense could overcome anything outside of that team in red and black, right?

Wrong. Nothing was right about Saturday night.

There was no more disastrous scenario than the one that played out. It’s hard to see Playoff and Heisman hopes come crashing down on the same night. If that is indeed Hooker’s last game in a Tennessee uniform, that wouldn’t sit right. He deserved better after the joy he brought back to Knoxville.

If there’s a silver lining once Tennessee wakes up from the Saturday nightmare, it’s that Heupel and that scheme aren’t going anywhere. With the Vols’ recruiting and NIL efforts, there’s plenty more talent walking through that door.

And hey, the season isn’t over yet. The Vols could still play in a New Year’s 6 Bowl with a chance to end the season on a much different note with potentially 11 wins, 2 of which coming against rivals. Any Tennessee fan would’ve signed up for that back in August.

But that’s still a tough pill to swallow knowing the opportunity that was blown. There was no guarantee that an 11-1 Tennessee was getting into the Playoff. It sure would’ve been a tough group to eliminate if TCU suffered a loss. We’ll never know how that would’ve played out.

All we know is that Tennessee peaked too early. The team who had LSU fans emptying out of Death Valley early in the 4th quarter and who took goalposts into the Tennessee River couldn’t handle the grind that is the SEC. Two November losses were devastating in their own unique way, but they’ll both be remembered in the same way.

These Vols weren’t on that level. Maybe they will be, though quarterbacks like Hooker shouldn’t be taken for granted, and neither should an offensive line who contained Will Anderson. Shoot, we shouldn’t assume the Vols will always have a group of receivers who could keep a Nick Saban secondary on its heels.

Tennessee’s 2022 squad shouldn’t be taken for granted. It might’ve gotten the program back to national relevance, and for much better reasons than “champions of life” references or checkered board trash cans.

I suppose that reality sank in for Heupel as he was escorted off the rushed field at Williams-Brice Stadium. Whether he admits it or not, he’ll be thinking about Saturday night for a long time. He should.

Somewhere in that sea of people, a storybook season went up in smoke.