In the “worst loss ever” conversation, the math will support your candidate of choice. Via Covers.com, the Vols were between 25-27 point favorites against Memphis in 1996, Wyoming in 2008, and Georgia State today. If you’d like to increase your suffering, we can argue which one was truly worse (and I’ll take Memphis), but as you’re known by the company you keep, there’s no spinning today.
The offense, strangely enough, punted once. That’s usually a good day at the office. It’s less so when it’s accompanied by three turnovers, two failed fourth down conversions, and two field goals from inside the opponent’s 15 yard line. Nonetheless, when the opponent is Georgia State, that should still be enough for victory.
The opponent trailed 17-14 at halftime, the beneficiary of a short field after the first of those turnovers on the second play of the game. The Vols averaged 5.5 yards per play to Georgia State’s 3.5 in the first 30 minutes. I don’t know about you, but there wasn’t much alarm at that point.
Then Georgia State went 75 yards in nine plays to open the third quarter. They needed just one third down conversion, and that was third-and-one. And that became the theme of the game from then on: Georgia State with the slow knife of four yards per carry, converting 10-of-17 third downs.
You convert 10-of-17 when 10 of those third downs require three yards or less for the conversion. And I think that’s Tennessee’s biggest problem. I might buy some situational fixes for some of the offensive issues. Defensively, the Vols were bad on third down because they were bad on first and second.
I also know this is true because we watched it for most of last season, it just got lost in the weirdness of the Florida game and the strength of our schedule. But against South Carolina, Missouri, and Vanderbilt? Tennessee’s defense failed to keep the other team’s offense off their schedule. The Vols didn’t have the bodies up front then graduated those bodies, lost the best of the few returning options to a knee injury, and only got another one eligible this week.
More than the offensive line, where you at least have some experience and your two highest-rated freshmen, I thought the defensive line would be the biggest issue all year. I thought some teams would be able to do the same thing most teams did to Tennessee last year: the easy 4-5 yards per carry leading to the weight of inevitability. If Georgia State is one of those teams, it’s now fair to ask if they all will be.
From a philosophical standpoint, if this trend continues, the Vols are going to have to get a lot more aggressive on offense to win this year. Will Jeremy Pruitt have the stomach for it? We spent most of the back half of Butch Jones’ tenure knowing his faults and hoping he could learn and grow. But some of the philosophical issues were never resolved. What will happen with Pruitt in that department? We’re on game one of season two, but this is obviously the most glaring and most damning data point.
When the events that led to Jeremy Pruitt transpired, we talked about how the program was vulnerable in a way it had not been in my lifetime. Fulmer’s presence and Pruitt’s competence – especially on the recruiting trail – brought, at least for me, at least for a while, a sense of calm in that storm. But for recruits who need reasons to pick a Tennessee program that is now 67-71 in the last 11 years and one game, capped off with a four-possession upset against a 2-10 Sun Belt team at home? Today was very not good. It’s still only the first game, and there’s still a lot to learn about this team and its coaching staff. But some of that learning needs to lean positive, or the program will find itself in an increasing state of vulnerability again.
Congratulations to Georgia State.