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Ole Miss 31 Tennessee 26: What do you want to talk about first?

KNOXVILLE, TN - October 16, 2021 - Linebacker Jeremy Banks #33 and Defensive back Theo Jackson #26 of the Tennessee Volunteers during the game between the Ole Miss Rebels and the Tennessee Volunteers at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, TN. Photo By Andrew Ferguson/Tennessee Athletics

What’s the most meaningful story for Tennessee coming out of that game?

Spoiler alert: the answer should always be the first one.

Controlling the controllables, as multiple coaching staffs and several good therapists would say. Tennessee’s controllables were again pretty good, and are becoming pretty consistent. Hendon Hooker basically hit his average through the air: 17-of-26 (65.4%) for 233 yards (9.0 yards per attempt) for a touchdown and zero interceptions. Tiyon Evans couldn’t go, but Jabari Small was game for 92 yards on 21 carries. Hooker’s throws went almost exclusively to wide receivers, a passing game that opened up nicely in the second half: 6 for 93 for Velus Jones, 7 for 84 for Cedric Tillman.

Also approaching “pretty good, pretty consistent” status way ahead of schedule: Tennessee’s defense. Ole Miss gained 510 yards in 101 plays. That’s 5.05 yards per play. Alabama held them to 4.62. No one else has held them to less than 7.5 this season. Only Arkansas (4.86) held them to less than 5.5 last season.

Tennessee’s defense – even when facing two of college football’s best offenses from Pittsburgh and Ole Miss – has made the requisite stops to give the Vols a chance to win.

Why didn’t we win in the controllables department? Aside from not dropping a punt after you’ve earned a stop on the opening series, Tennessee’s greatest weakness is also consistent. The Vols are 121st nationally in sacks allowed, surrendering 3.57 per game. And Tennessee’s protection has also been guilty of holding penalties in crucial moments.

The Vols cut it to 31-26 with 13:41 to go last night. The next Ole Miss possession ended with the Trevon Flowers diving interception. Tennessee picked up two first downs for 1st-and-10 at the Ole Miss 42 with 11:37 to play. But they were hit for holding on 1st-and-10, and punted on 4th-and-17.

Ole Miss bled 3:30 off the clock, but the defense got a stop when Matt Corral came out of the game on 3rd-and-10. Ninety yards away from the lead, the Vols picked up three first downs on two Hendon Hooker runs and a pass to JaVonta Payton. The Vols had 1st-and-10 at the 50 with less than three minutes to play. But Hooker was sacked on first down, followed by a holding penalty on second down.

We can get in our feelings about the spot on 4th-and-24, and perhaps rightfully so. What the Vols can do better is not get in 4th-and-24.

…except now, that might be a little harder. Because Hendon Hooker went down after all the craziness, and as I write on Sunday evening, we’re unsure for how long. He did all that, plus 108 yards on the ground, behind an offensive line without the Brothers Mays and with guys that would’ve been considered third string at some point in their careers.

Through seven games in SP+, the Vols rank as the 15th best team in the nation with a rating of 16.0. Again, I think the best context for that is this:

The 2015 Vols are easily the best play-for-play team of the last 14 seasons in Knoxville. After that, in SP+ you’ve got 2016 (16.3), 2009 (16.2), and this team through seven weeks (16.0).

We might want to put a pin in this, because how many injuries until “this team” isn’t “this team” anymore?

But whatever happens from here, there’s so much to like about what we’ve seen from this team and this coaching staff in year one. Not in wild near misses or even a stunning upset. But in the way they play every play, which is a far, far greater positive for the future.

I also really liked the way Josh Heupel handled questions about trash on the field, simultaneously recognizing the disappointment in the behavior of a few and admiration for the environment as a whole.

The simultaneous is important here. The simplest version of the truth – usually a good place to start – is that there were legitimate reasons for Tennessee fans to be upset, and that there is never a legitimate reason to throw something on the field. The vast majority of us experienced the former without engaging in the latter.

Beyond that, there’s also a lot of nuance here, which we waded into for a bit on our podcast. Like why is it hard for people to admit both of those things are true? Who gets to be the expert on Tennessee’s reputation? Have we gotten better or worse at learning how to lose?

It’s in the nature of trash to be worthless. That’s why you’re throwing it away. I actually think garbage can be a meaningful metaphor for hell, especially the ways it might be present here on earth. Garbage tends to be obvious, it tends to smell, and thus it has to go.

I also like the way the New Testament plays with fruit and rotten as opposites. So there’s this truth that throwing something on the field is fruitless: it doesn’t do any good, it’s worthless, it stinks, etc.

But also, in the particular context of last night, throwing stuff on the field wasn’t just fruitless. It was also rotten, as in directly harmful to the very person doing it, because we still had a chance to win.

Chances are you didn’t throw a thing. I don’t know what you’re most emotional about, or most want to talk about from that game by the time you’re probably reading this on Monday. There’s a lot of good fruit and even more seeds in what we’ve seen from Josh Heupel and this team so far. How much more fruit is left in this season may depend on the health of the roster. Talking about the way Tennessee played should always be the lead story.

But wherever we may find ourselves tempted to engage whoever about what happened, or to defend an action that just shouldn’t be defended no matter how much we understand the emotion behind it? We might do ourselves a favor by considering the fruitfulness (and lack thereof) in any of this, and in the way we talk about our team.

I’m hopeful the way Tennessee plays is on its way to being not just the lead story, but a good one.

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