It’s easy, and perhaps now natural, to take a Tennessee performance like this against a group-of-five school and lament what it wasn’t. A hallmark of Tennessee’s post-2007 swoon is some combination of inability and unwillingness to dominate mid-majors. Starting with a four-point win over Northern Illinois and a loss to Wyoming in 2008, every single season has included a “meh” moment. Some calls are closer than others: UAB in 2010, Troy in 2012, South Alabama in 2013, UMass in 2017, and of course Georgia State in September. But these years also include plenty of scores like 24-0 over North Texas, 28-19 over Ohio, and 14-3 over Charlotte last year.
UAB was 6-1 and 16-3 over its last 19, but it was clear from the outset the 2019 Blazers were painfully short on competition. Tennessee’s defense dominated, included a record-tying performance from Bryce Thompson. Tennessee’s offense had their moments, but didn’t capitalize the way you wanted with such great field position. The red zone performance was more of the unfortunate same: five trips but only three touchdowns, leaving the Vols with only 14 touchdowns on 32 trips this season, 126th nationally in red zone touchdown percentage. (Stats via SportSource Analytics)
That remains Tennessee’s greatest statistical weakness, and an important one in these last three games. The decision to play Jarrett Guarantano most of the night, even with a surgically-repaired non-throwing hand, resurfaced some of our anxiety at quarterback after a brief spark from Brian Maurer and, truly, one of the best passing performances of the decade from Guarantano and J.T. Shrout just last week. Last night’s performance makes last week look even better, but mixes in old fears with new hopes.
But viewed through the lens of the entire season, Tennessee is still moving hard and fast in the right direction. In that long list of mid-major disappointments, you get lines like -22.5 in a 14-3 win over Charlotte, -28 in a 17-13 win over UMass, -27 in a 28-19 win over Ohio, etc.
Last night, due both to Tennessee’s start and UAB’s consistency, the Vols were only -13.5, and won by 23. The Vols have now covered the spread four weeks in a row for the first time since 2010, and just the 10th time in the last 35 years (closing lines via covers.com). Tennessee made it five weeks in a row at the end of the 2010 regular season thanks to Tyler Bray, who helped the Vols cover in defeat at South Carolina, then went 4-0 straight up and against Vegas in November. Before that, the last time Tennessee covered five straight weeks: the first five games of 1998.
Vegas, like the rest of us, hasn’t had a good feel for Tennessee all year. The Vols were overvalued by 62.5 points in their first four FBS games, and have now been undervalued by 61 points in the last four games. It’s a tangible sign of an actual turnaround. But the Vols have to get this thing to six wins to still call it that in the off-season.
Tennessee was 4-5 headed into this stretch last season, but got what felt like a revelation in the 24-7 win over #12 Kentucky. And then it turned out the prophets were false.
This time, there will be no revelations unless Missouri creates one first: Kentucky is 4-4, Missouri 5-3 and set to face Georgia and Florida back-to-back, and Vanderbilt is 2-6. The journey ventured through the upside-down, but the end result we wanted in preseason – rise above the SEC East’s second tier, close the gap on your biggest rivals – is here for the taking. The turnaround narrative – and its chance to last us all off-season, and spend eight months thinking about what will be instead of what could’ve been – is alive. Whether the Vols cover or not, play Guarantano or not, or any number of the uncertainties that have defined this season, the Vols need two wins in three games. Three in three, and I still believe the Vols can be in line for a much nicer bowl opportunity than we thought even in preseason.
Hope lives, even if we saw some glimpses of what tried to take it away against UAB. The Vols still played better than expected all things considered, and by Vegas’ standards have done so more consistently now than in nine years. The margins remain small and the questions many, but for the last month Tennessee has found the right answer again and again. Hope lives. It should probably hang on tight.