None of Tennessee’s off-field drama carried over between the lines in Saturday night’s 24-10 homecoming win over Southern Mississippi.
So much for the #EmptyNeyland campaign, too. There were more than 95,000 people in Neyland Stadium to watch the Vols beat the Mustard Buzzards, er, Golden Eagles. Yes, it was just a two-touchdown win over a Conference USA Team, but any win for a 4-5 team should feel good.
It isn’t going to change any of the lingering big-picture frustrations, and, given Missouri’s 45-16 win at home over Florida on Saturday prior to hosting the Vols next week, it may not change the ultimate fruitless outcome of the season, but a win is a win is a win.
The best fans in the country were treated to a victory. That’s all that needs to be said tonight. Save the grumpiness for tomorrow.
A skeleton crew of Vols who were down to five scholarship offensive linemen after a few injuries during the game and who were forced to rip the redshirt off once fourth-string quarterback Will McBride reached deep down and pulled out a strong defensive performance to get their first win since a 17-13 escape over UMass back on September 23 that felt like a loss.
Listen: Everybody deals with adversity in different ways. For me, it’s snark, as you’ve probably seen on my Twitter account the past few weeks in trying to cope with the baffling fifth season of the Butch Jones tenure. Some people quit [as we know all too well at UT]. Others go extreme and pull for losses. Still, others elect to give up or lash out with meanness that is unnecessary.
Whatever is going to happen with the Jones tenure is going to happen. Most likely, the decision already has been made. Regardless, your 140 characters won’t make a difference. In reality, a win over Southern Miss likely won’t make much of one, either, but it may delay the inevitable another week.
It may not, depending on investigations and nasty endings and witch hunts and reasons to look for cause.
Ultimately, that’s none of our decisions to make.
But for the players remaining on the field Saturday night, they responded to adversity with a victory. They sang Rocky Top. A few players even did backflips. These kids didn’t care that they beat a team they were supposed to beat. They won again. That’s all that mattered. Good for them with all the crap they’ve had to endure.
There were more than a few smiles on the sideline, which was nice to see after a week filled with the Brett Kendrick concussion drama and the abrupt departure of Vol for Life coordinator Antone Davis, who inserted his own parting shots at Jones on his way out the door.
The players deserve better than what they’ve endured this year, and the fans deserve better, too. Saturday was better. Even if it only meant going from three wins to four wins and inching closer to bowl eligibility with games remaining against Missouri, LSU and Vanderbilt.
None of those games look easy, and UT should probably be underdogs in all three. If you’re in the camp of wanting the Vols to lose to force Jones’ ouster, well, first of all, shame on you. Secondly, you’ll probably still get your wish. So, let those of us who pull for Tennessee to win every game be happy for a night.
What happened on the field against the Golden Eagles didn’t change anything. The Vols are still bad; possibly the worst team in the SEC. They are still 0-5 in the league, which is still unacceptable. Though the defense looked better, it was against a C-USA team that has been far from prolific. Though Vols quarterback Jarrett Guarantano looked OK while he was in there, an ankle injury forced him out and McBride in. The true freshman backup looked about like you’d expect him to.
McBride finished 1-of-8 passing for 13 yards. He had four carries for 7 yards. Tennessee couldn’t manufacture first downs with him in there and limped out the win, which probably was only possible because the defense made some momentum-swinging plays like an Emmanuel Moseley interception and a Darrell Taylor-forced fumble recovered by Rashaan Gaulden.
If you’re a football dermatologist looking for the team’s warts, there are still plenty. The only thing the game against USM did was give us that old time feeling of winning again, and on homecoming, no less.
I don’t know how Tennessee is going to even field a team over the next few weeks, there are so many injuries. The SEC Network reported that Evan Berry was carted off the field at halftime [But, hey! At least we got to see him return one last kick to near midfield to set up a game-opening touchdown!]. Jonathan Kongbo was suspended for a violation of team rules, and, in this day and age of endless Tennessee drama, who knows what he did? Guarantano didn’t return in the second half after trying to play, and the offensive line was forced to ask for numerous snaps from a 275-pound converted tight end in Devante Brooks who hadn’t played a snap of organized football in a game since his sophomore year of high school.
It isn’t so much raining in Knoxville as coming a tornado with neck-deep water already on the ground.
Now, they’ve got to travel to Columbia to take on a Mizzou team that left the ranks of the winless in conference play on Saturday by throwing up 45 on a Gators team that, even though they beat the Vols, are in the same boat as the Vols.
After that, an LSU team that played hard in Tuscaloosa before predictably succumbing. Then, the Vols will play Vanderbilt, and let’s all hope they can find a way to win that one.
There’s no reason to think anything about a rosy future even though Tennessee won Saturday night. There are too many remnants of what we currently are to change anybody’s long-term thoughts about the direction of the program under Jones.
But Saturday night was about winning another football game. It was about McBride’s redshirt not being burned in vain. It was about Brooks playing well though he’s far from in SEC shape yet. It was about the much-maligned Moseley getting an important interception to win a game during his senior year. It was about John Kelly coming back from a one-game suspension to rush for a pair of touchdowns.
For some of you, it’s about Jones failing to coach great and seize the win as much as Southern Miss giving the Vols the game with mistakes. For others, it’s about you [rightly] questioning offensive coordinator Larry Scott failing to give Ty Chandler more than 11 touches after answering “God, yes” when asked if he needed to get his hands on the ball more. [In Scott’s defense, Chandler struggled behind the makeshift offensive line with just 15 yards]. For others still, it’s about potentially keeping Jones for yet another week when you just want finality to his era.
I understand all that. I’m in both camps. I’m happy with the win but mad about the season. I’m encouraged about the response from the remnants of an SEC team with the knowledge that this team likely isn’t going to win an SEC game unless it plays much better than it has over the past month-plus. I want another coach and another direction, but I still can’t help but root for Jones to make the right calls from the sideline while he’s on the sideline and for the kids to make the plays to win the game.
Saturday night, they won the game. Weeping remains in this dreadful 2017 season. So does gnashing of teeth. For a night, just be happy.