Thomas Paine wasn’t talking about football but he had it right: These are the times that try men’s souls.
The faint of heart will throw up both hands and say all is lost. It isn’t, but Tennessee certainly took a hit. One of the best success stories in all of college football turned into what might have been – and one of the worst defensive performances in school history.
The Volunteers have won nine games with smoke and mirrors in the secondary. South Carolina exposed the weaknesses. The Vols are short on ordinary talent. Saturday night they looked slow to react and run, lacked focus and couldn’t stop anything.
There was no sense of urgency. The coaching scheme had defects. There was virtually no heat on the quarterback. Can you believe nine touchdowns in 10 possessions and an alarming assortment of chunk plays!
Let me be the first to tell you that the Gamecocks could cost the Vols a double-header. Vanderbilt has learned how to win. If Tennessee doesn’t set aside this heartbreak and get up off the floor in time to practice, the Commodores might also deliver a shocker.
If it happens, if a fun season is totally wrecked, remember where you heard the warning. I learned it from Neyland. He feared everybody, even Chattanooga.
Each time I write, I invite comments from readers. My first message, early Sunday morning, was this recollection of the Hendon Hooker injury.
“Willing to talk about agony? What a lasting image I have of our Heisman hopeful, flat on the ground, screaming in pain. Hendon is a tough guy. He was hurting so bad, he didn’t even look for the fumble.”
Teammates were deeply affected.
Second message was a call to fire two coaches, defensive coordinator Tim Banks and defensive backs coach Willie Martinez.
Martinez has experience being fired from Tennessee. Butch Jones brought him aboard as assistant head coach in 2013 and set him adrift in 2016.
Willie coached nine seasons at Georgia, two at Oklahoma, one at Auburn and several other places. He has rarely been home for Christmas. He has coached in 21 bowl games.
Next was a question. What happened?
An up-and-down South Carolina team suddenly became an up-and-down-the-field team. Spencer Rattler has never played better in his life. Indeed, Tennessee contributed. The Vols failed to distract him, make him even a wee bit uncomfortable.
Hard to explain how a four-point deficit grew to 32. Amazing that a mediocre team could muscle up and play as well as South Carolina did.
The idea for the Gamecocks’ fancy game plan supposedly came from former Cleveland Browns coach Freddie Kitchens, long ago quarterback at Alabama, now senior analyst for South Carolina. He thought it was time to move away from a dull running attack that wasn’t going anywhere. I think he was right.
The Vols missed linebacker Jeremy Banks. If Josh Heupel suspended him for one game, why is a deep, dark secret. No explanation does Banks no favor. Whispers are loud about an NIL conflict.
The Gamecocks had the 11th best offensive numbers in the Southeastern Conference. Video evidence could have caused overconfidence. The Tennessee rip job on Missouri might have made the Vols think they are pretty good.
They are/were good offensively, best in the country.
They are/were among the worst against the passing game. No question about that,
Preventing overconfidence, maintaining focus, is among Josh Heupel’s top 76 obligations. I don’t think he is deeply involved with defense.
How bad is the pass defense? Rattler threw 39 times. Tennessee broke up three. Eleven opponents have attempted 446 passes. The Vols have intercepted nine.
One more reader question: Does anything compare to this defeat?
Yes, the 31-20 loss to LSU in the 2001 SEC championship game was the most painful previously. It’s the one fans haven’t gotten over. A victory over the Tigers would have sent the Vols to the Rose Bowl to play for the national championship.
Tennessee beat LSU that September. Tennessee was up 17-7 in the SEC title game. LSU lost its starting running back and starting quarterback. Matt Mauck was the reserve who led the Tigers’ upset victory.
Marvin West welcomes reader comments or questions. His address is [email protected]/