Tim Tebow is no stranger to Neyland Stadium. As a superstar college quarterback and starter on three of the 11-consecutive Florida Gator squads to defeat the Vols, Tebow understands first hand just how electric the atmosphere in Neyland can get.
“It’s loud,” Tebow said during an interview hours before kickoff. “I still remember my freshman year, the fourth-and-one here, and I remember thinking at the time that is the loudest sound I have ever heard. This place gets jumpy really fast.”
On Thursday evening, the accumulated hype induced by one of the nation’s most passionate fan bases resulted in an instantaneous wall of sound. So much has been anticipated for Team 120. After closing out last season with six-consecutive victories along with the return of some of the SEC’s most dynamic play-makers both offensively and defensively, Tennessee’s opening night was supposed to be a walk in the park against an over-matched opponent.
Back in Tebow’s days as a starting quarterback in Gainesville, the Gators outscored the Vols 112-39. Of course, those Tennessee teams didn’t have the mix of talent, experience and coaching this Orange and White squad possesses. When asked how this Volunteer team would stack up against his great Florida teams that recorded back-to-back 13-1 seasons and won the 2008 National Championship, Tebow hesitated to make any comparisons.
“You gotta see,” Tebow said. “Everything that everyone is talking about is speculation. It’s what we base on practice and guess what, there are a lot of people that play a lot different in games than practice. So, we’ll see when the lights come on how they handle pressure, how they handle big-time moments, how they handle third and fourth-downs, how they handle the highs and lows. That’s what’s going to make a championship team or an 8-win team.”
Speculation in economics, like sports, is a risky business. The hope is that business transactions yield a profit, but no matter what level of statistical analysis is applied, there remains a risk of something running amuck.
For Tennessee, Thursday night ran amuck quickly. The alleged walk in the park against Appalachian State became a tip-toe through a minefield after a number of self-induced errors set the tone for a sloppy evening.
There was Cam Sutton’s muffed punt early in the first quarter that negated the Vols’ first possession and led to a Mountaineer score. There was Jalen Reeves-Maybin’s ill-advised decision to hit low while covering a punt late in the first quarter, resulting in an ejection. There was Alvin Kamara’s lack of involvement (seven touches for the entire game) due to the flow of the game. There was Josh Dobbs’ inability to read the field and make accurate downfield throws, along with constant breakdowns in pass protection.
Anything that could’ve gone wrong, did go wrong on Thursday for Tennessee. And that’s exactly why squeaking out a 20-13 overtime win was perfect. It serves as a wake up call not only for the team, but the entire fan base.
As previously mentioned, the hype manifested by fans reached unforeseen heights. Today’s social media climate gives everyone an opinion. While I’m a strong proponent of the first amendment, that right isn’t always utilized in the proper fashion, especially in the realm of sports fandom. It doesn’t matter how the end of the last season transpired and it doesn’t matter how many talented pieces returned. The puzzle on the 2016 Tennessee Volunteers wasn’t going to be completed during its opening game.
What Tebow said about speculation is on the money. A preseason poll is merely speculation. A betting line is merely speculation. There’s heavy thinking involved, but it’s not an exact science. How could anybody possibly predict the Vols’ four captains would struggle so mightily? How could anyone predict Appalachian State—a program entering its third season as an FBS program—would be that formidable in a hostile SEC environment?
“Again, to educate y’all,” head coach Butch Jones said during the post-game press conference. “We played a really good football team. You don’t win 17 of 19 games if you’re not a good football team.”
Tennessee fans appear to be obsessed with past. While clamoring about how this year “Feels like ’98” in reference to the Vols’ 1998 championship season, they also lasered in on how this year “Doesn’t Feel like ’07”, the same year the Mountaineers recorded their legendary upset of Michigan. That upset had nothing to with Thursday night. Yet, it was discussed as if it held any relevance. Because the truth is, the gap between that Appalachian State team and Michigan is much wider then the present day version of the Mountaineers and Tennessee.
USA Today’s speculated that Appalachian State is the No. 43 team in the country. That placed them ahead of six SEC programs. There were obvious reasons to respect this team. There were obvious reasons to believe this team experienced a significant upgrade since 2007.
Yet, the victory wasn’t good enough for the Vol faithful because it didn’t live up to their expectations. But what exactly has this program under Jones proven to warrant such expectations? A 45-6 blowout win over Northwestern isn’t the sign of a bubbling dynasty. Reeling off five-consecutive victories over the likes of Kentucky, South Carolina, North Texas, Missouri and Vanderbilt isn’t the most telling sign that this team is yet ready to contend.
I speculated that given all the circumstances, Team 120 should place a hyphen between the “12” and the “0” and roll into Atlanta unblemished. At the same time, what transpired Thursday wasn’t surprising, nor will it force me to alter my opinion. Tennessee picked the best time to have its worst game. No championship in the history of any sport is determined after the first game. If that were the case, the Tennessee Titans would be back-to-back Super Bowl champions.
So as a lasting message, speculation is risky and no team is immune to it. Hopefully, Vol Nation realizes now that no amount of Twitter chatter or preseason hype off the field results in wins on the field.
Edited by Jordan Dajani
Featured image by Donald Page, courtesy of Tennessee Athletics