On multiple occasions this season, Butch Jones has called Tennessee’s slow starts “uncharacteristic.”
Jones’ math is a little off. If the Vols have started slow in 100 percent of their games, then by definition, that’s characteristic.
For one reason or another, Tennessee commits first-half gaffes that result in double-digit deficits like its the Vols’ religion, which then triggers the entire fan base to call for the demise of an entire coaching staff. But in the second half, a flip is switched, the orange and white become an almost unstoppable force of nature and the fan base proceeds to gather around the campfire singing Kumbaya.
It doesn’t matter how ugly it’s been. It doesn’t matter that the Vols have fallen behind 13-3 to Appalachian State, 14-0 to Virginia Tech, 21-0 to Florida and 17-0 to Georgia. They’re undefeated. They’re in the driver’s seat to win the SEC East and head to Atlanta.
They’re also very lucky and fortunate to be 5-0. And that’s perfectly alright.
Tennessee has failed to play a complete game so far this season. Part of that is due to injuries to star defensive players like Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Cameron Sutton, but it’s primarily due to the aforementioned mental lapses.
On what was supposed to be Team 120’s first offensive possession on the season against Appalachian State, Sutton muffed a punt, leading to a Mountaineer score. Against the Gators, the Vols squandered two red zone opportunities in the first half and faced a 21-3 halftime deficit. In last Saturday’s win over the Bulldogs, running back Jalen Hurd caught a pass reminiscent of his touchdown reception against Florida. Hurd was wide open and perfectly positioned to score. He scored against the Gators, but against Georgia, Hurd’s lack of awareness nearly cost his team. Instead of charging into the end zone for an easy score, Hurd eased up, allowing a Georgia defender to lay a vicious hit on Hurd that knocked the ball loose at the one-yard line.
To the Vols’ credit, they’ve overcome every single mistake with stellar second-half play. Tennessee has been outscored 77-51 in the first half this season. In the second half, the Vols have outscored their opponents 107-38.
That Jekyll-and-Hyde play won’t bode well against Texas A&M and Alabama. Both the Aggies and Crimson Tide present matchup nightmares that the Vols won’t be able to overcome. However, against weaker non-conference opponents and flawed SEC East rivals, Tennessee has survived thanks to its superior athleticism, mental toughness and moments of pure luck.
How else can you explain Dobbs’ baffling decision to leap toward the end zone against Appalachian State while holding the ball like a loaf of bread, resulting in a fumble recovered in the end zone by Hurd? How else can you explain Virginia Tech’s egregious first-half fumble during the Battle at Bristol that swallowed all of its momentum whole? How else can you explain the penalization of elation after scoring a touchdown with ten seconds left against a bitter rival thanks to our “PC culture?”
Maybe the Hail Mary against the Bulldogs wasn’t lucky — Jauan Jennings did a magnificent job of spotting the ball and timing his jump — but the entire situation leading up to that play was riddled with fortune. Not only was Georgia called for a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty after converting on a Hail Mary of its own, the Bulldogs also committed an offside penalty on the ensuing kickoff. Without those penalties, the Vols would’ve been forced to try a series of laterals.
Vol Twitter claims that the Hail Mary wasn’t lucky, but the set of circumstances were. That’s not uncommon in sports, especially for teams that win.
The 2015 Denver Broncos were one of the luckiest teams in NFL history. Why? Because circumstances that were out of their control fell into their favor. At 12-4, they were tied for the best record in the AFC with the New England Patriots, but owned the tiebreaker. However, New England blew a golden opportunity to wrap up home field late in the season against the New York Jets. With the game heading to overtime, the Patriots elected to put its defense on the field first despite having the greatest quarterback in NFL history. They played with fire and got burned in the process, as the Jets drove down the field and won the game with a touchdown.
Without that decision, the AFC Championship is played in Foxborough instead of Mile High Stadium.
Tennessee doesn’t deserve criticism for having the bounce of the ball go its way. In fact, until Saturday’s game in Athens, the Vols were the college football kings at recovering their own fumbles. But this team should not be confused with elite programs like Alabama, Ohio State and Clemson. Those teams are powerhouses because they don’t depend on luck. Rather, they depend on self-discipline and preparation.
But, maybe Team 120 is this season’s version of the 2013 Auburn Tigers, whose miraculous victories over Georgia and Alabama in back-to-back weeks spring-boarded them to the national championship game. Personnel wise, the Tigers weren’t an upper-echelon SEC squad. Not only was Auburn fresh off a 3-9 record the season before, but it hadn’t earned a top-25 spot in the AP Poll until its seventh game.
“Don’t test your luck” has never been more applicable to a team than this Tennessee team.
Because while the Broncos were lucky, they won a Super Bowl because their defense executed. While Auburn was lucky, they eventually lost the National Championship because its defense couldn’t execute.
It’s time for the Vols to stop testing their luck. They’ve come full circle, starting the season as the preseason No. 9 team in the country and fighting their way back to the same spot. Luck won’t deliver a win over a superior Aggie team. Ball control will. Neutralizing a dangerous defense line will. Forcing turnovers will.
Tennessee is fortunate to be 5-0. That’s perfectly alright.
Now, they need to start controlling their own destiny.
Edited by Nathan Odom
Featured image by Craig Bisacre, courtesy of Tennessee Athletics