In The Name of Good Surprises

The question of Josh Heupel’s best win isn’t up for debate; the Alabama game last year is Tennessee’s best win ever if you’re under the age of 25 or so. But one of the best things about being back in the national conversation is the multitude of good wins – so many, in fact, that some of them get sent to the backs of our minds in hopes of making room for the next one.

Two years ago this weekend, Tennessee went to Missouri after a “why didn’t we play better” loss in Gainesville. It was the floodgates, rapidly: the Vols won 62-24 and certainly got our attention. But we’d seen so much for so long, etc., no one was signaling that the Vols were back by beating Missouri.

In fact, the language we used in previewing South Carolina the following week was, “It’s a big game in the way it enables other games to be big.” It’s the kind of language that found its way to this game after Steve Spurrier arrived in Columbia: while never our biggest rival, the Gamecocks became enablers on the path from good to great. Beat Carolina, and you’re still alive in the division. Beat Carolina, and your season is still on track. Or in this case, beat Carolina, and you’re 4-1 heading into a bye week.

Two years ago, Tennessee did just that, in glorious fashion both literally and figuratively depending on your love for dark mode. Noon kick, no worries: the Vols blasted out of the gates 35-0 en route to a 45-20 victory. It was an amazing, “is this really happening?!” performance, one that helped pave the way for all the great things Heupel’s teams have done.

The question of Heupel’s hardest loss is, of course, also an easy answer. A year after beating South Carolina by 25 in a game we led by 35, South Carolina beat us by 25 in a game they led by 32.

This kind of swing – one team wins by 20+, then the other team wins by 20+ the next year – is unheard of at Tennessee since expansion in seasons that didn’t involve coaching volatility. It’s only happened three times among UT’s annual rivalries in that span that I can find:

  • In 2009, Lane Kiffin’s Vols beat Georgia by 29. In Derek Dooley’s first season the following year, the Dawgs won by 31 in Athens.
  • In 2016, Tennessee ran way from Missouri in the second half in a 63-37 offensive explosion. The following year, Missouri blasted Tennessee 50-17; Butch Jones was let go the following day. Heupel was the offensive coordinator for both Missouri teams.
  • 2021 & 2022 South Carolina

Whatever your consideration of South Carolina as a rival, the annual part is going away. These two teams won’t meet in 2024, a first since 1991. In the post-Fulmer era, Tennessee and South Carolina have split the last 14 meetings.

And in preseason, if I asked you which win you’d absolutely want the most? This game would’ve at least made the short list.

There’s an air of unpredictability about, which is in part due to how bananas good Tennessee’s offense was last year in ways that are difficult to duplicate. They still scored 38 points on 507 total yards in this one last year. What also gets sent to the backs of our brains are the ways it didn’t always come so easily, even for Heupel’s teams here, and the Vols still dominated. The second half of that 2021 South Carolina game opened with Tennessee punting four times in a row, with two three-and-outs. Carolina trimmed the gap to 38-20 and had the ball with ten minutes left. The Vols got the stop, then added on for the final margin.

It’s never perfect, but often good. How good can the Vols be offensively Saturday night? How less-than can they make Spencer Rattler, who threw seven incompletions in this game last year and has thrown just 13 this season when not playing Georgia?

That’s the fun of all of this, of course. It’s a big game. And it creates the opportunity for others to be big. I’ll miss this fun little rivalry with its short commute. It’s given us Steve Tanneyhill and Tee Martin and Lou Holtz. It’s handed us some of our hardest losses. And it’s created opportunities for new life, from Michael Palardy to Josh Dobbs to black jerseys.

I’m very excited to see what this chapter holds on Saturday night.

Go Vols.

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