So I tried lying to myself all week, about how this game wouldn’t really matter. If Georgia Tech’s unique offense got the best of Tennessee’s Kirkland-less defense, we couldn’t draw too many conclusions. If Tennessee’s offense looked great against an uncelebrated Yellow Jacket defense, we couldn’t get too excited. No matter what happened, our chances in the SEC East race and the season’s narrative would be largely unaffected.
That was a stupid thing to believe.
The Defensive Numbers in Context
There is a helplessness that can set in when playing an offense like Georgia Tech’s. It reminded me a little of our 1990’s games against Nebraska; even with less talent and lower stakes, when that offense is humming a two-possession lead feels like 20. And you can try to talk yourself into whatever you want, but when the ball is kicked in week one the stakes are always high because they are carrying an entire off-season on their shoulders. In Tennessee’s case, an off-season plus some leftovers from 2016.
So it is comforting the day after to realize that while Georgia Tech did run for 535 yards, the most a Tennessee defense has ever allowed, they also did so on 86 carries. Their 6.22 yards per carry are not something we want to try to reproduce, but it’s also not as bad as what Tennessee’s defense surrendered to Texas A&M (7.06), Alabama (8.52), Kentucky (8.05), or Missouri (6.27) last year. GT’s 6.82 yards per play won’t lead us to a successful season if it shows up in the box score every week, but the Vols allowed more than seven yards per play to A&M, Alabama, Kentucky, and Vanderbilt last year. It was by no means success, but I might wait to see what this defense does against the offenses it’ll see the rest of the year before passing judgment on Bob Shoop’s 2017.
Third Down For Less
It was not, of course, comforting in the moment last night. Listening to cries of “STOP THEM!” was like watching your undersized team get dominated on the boards and all you can do is yell “BOX OUT!” Adding to the discomfort: Tennessee’s offense got off to a not-great start. The first half went like this: punt, three-and-out, three-and-out, three-and-out, an eight-play, 46-yard touchdown drive, and a turnover on downs featuring sub-par clock management. Then a three-and-out to open the second half, at which point Georgia Tech ran the third quarter clock down to 3:14 with a 21-7 lead before missing a 47-yard field goal.
The game got a lot more fun after that. A sure path to no fun: Tennessee’s opening drives featured 3rd-and-12, 3rd-and-8, 3rd-and-10, and 3rd-and-10. But after that, the Vols saw no worse than 3rd-and-7 the rest of the night with one exception: the 3rd-and-9 dump-off to John Kelly that went for 10, two plays before Marquez Callaway’s 50-yard touchdown.
Quinten Dormady might turn into something really special; right now the Vols just need him to be something good. Last year the Vols could count on a veteran quarterback to get them out of trouble on third down with both his arms and his legs. This year the Vols have to help Dormady get out of trouble on third down by not getting in trouble on first and second down. It certainly made a tremendous difference in the second half last night.
Let Team 121 Be Team 121
I was in the stands last night and didn’t even know there was a trash can on the sideline until I saw it this morning. If the players like it – context clues suggest they do – perhaps Butch Jones and this bunch embrace a bit of them against the world? People making fun of something else the coach does? Bring it on. You don’t like the trash can? Maybe next week there are two of them. If you’re going to do the trash can, own the trash can.
This team will need to rally around each other, and they got plenty of practice last night. Not only has Tennessee lost its biggest names and faces from last season, it will now be without Darrin Kirkland Jr. and Jauan Jennings all year. It’s helpful to remember that, while Tennessee’s injury luck has been astoundingly bad, the Vols did beat Florida and Georgia and should have beaten Texas A&M without Kirkland, Cam Sutton, and Jalen Reeves-Maybin last fall. It wasn’t the quality of injuries that did the Vols in last fall; the defense’s shutdown performance against the Gators in the second half came on the shoulders of guys like Colton Jumper. No program is going to handle 2016’s quantity of injuries well. But for now, while losing Kirkland and Jennings in no way will make Tennessee better, there is plenty of talent to meet this new opportunity. Daniel Bituli and Marquez Callaway are Exhibits A and B. We’ll need more, but it was a great opening response.
The drama was similar, but the names and faces last night were new…and the Vols still got it done. It’s a long year with the entirety of conference play before us…but this offense should have earned plenty of confidence in the second half, and the defense will have a chance to do the same against traditional offenses. Team 121 will face plenty of adversity. But if they learned how to handle it better than Team 120, they’ll have a chance to have a more successful season. And in that department, last night was a really good start.