How will you remember 2022? Ten victories, high in the poll for a while or one devastating defeat? Hendon Hooker brilliance, losing streaks stopped or damage linked to South Carolina’s 63 points?
Hooker’s five touchdown passes to Jalin Hyatt against Alabama or Hooker’s knee injury without a Gamecock at fault?
How about 56-0 over Vanderbilt, poor Vanderbilt?
Tennessee defeated Florida, 38-33, to end the Gators’ demoralizing monopoly. Almost all of the spirited crowd (101,915) celebrated. Josh Heupel was very happy.
“Man, what a great night on Rocky Top. The energy inside the stadium was electric. It was unbelievable. It even surpassed my expectations. The Vol Walk was unlike anything I’ve ever seen as a player or coach. The fans were a huge part of the win.”
Coach, Coach, it was a great game but it sure wasn’t a knockout.
The short version of what happened was a sensational quarterback shootout with unusual statistics. There weren’t many defensive stops.
Hooker was some degree of great – 22 of 28 for 349 yards and two touchdowns plus 13 runs for 112 more yards and another score. Florida’s Anthony Richardson set a career high with 453 yards passing. He threw for two TDs and got two on the ground.
Tennessee’s pass defense was suspect.
How about Brunch in Baton Rouge? Crisp Vols, favored by three, won by 27. Tennessee was 20 ahead before the bumbling Tigers realized the game had started. Usually passionate LSU fans surrendered “Death Valley” to the visitors’ celebration. Love Louisiana kickoffs at 11 a.m. CST.
Tennessee’s defense earned a full share of applause. Vols sacked Tiger quarterback Jayden Daniels five times. LSU’s running attack was knocked down to 55 yards on 28 tries. Defensive back Dee Williams, idled the first four games, turned his first touch into a 58-yard punt return.
Brian Kelly, former Notre Dame coach with the $95-million contract, helped the Vols. His fourth-down calls went bad.
“We have to coach better,” he said.
An LSU fan was more emphatic: “Brian Kelly looks more and more like a supremely expensive mistake.”
Alabama domination ended on Oct. 15. One Tide fan saw the significance: “When you beat Alabama, you rush the field, tear down goalposts and jump up in the polls. You deserve it.”
In westwords, it was a Vol victory for the ages. Readers were invited to pick their own adjective – amazing, sensational or historic.
Tennessee got a winning 40-yard field goal from Chase McGrath as time expired. It was an ugly knuckleball that limped over the crossbar but stunned Alabama, 52-49, and accomplished so much.
It stopped the Tide’s 15-year monopoly. It set off a spectacular celebration. It raised Tennessee’s record to 6-0. Dozens of recruits must have wondered if college football gets any better – anytime, anywhere.
“What an environment!” exclaimed Heupel. The full house was loud and rambunctious. The student section limited communications at the south end and may have been a factor in the 17 Alabama infractions that cost 130 yards.
This was a forever offensive show – 569 yards for Alabama, only two less for Tennessee.
Hook had a Heisman look – 21 of 30 passes, 385 yards, five TDs to Hyatt.
Alabama missed what could have been the decisive field goal – with 15 seconds to go. Tennessee, at the wrong end of the field, could have played for overtime. It went for the win.
Hooker threw to Ramel Keyton for 18. Bru McCoy made a big-boy catch for 27. McGrath hit the three-pointer. What happened next felt like an earthquake.
Fans, mostly students, streamed onto Shields-Watkins Field. Dr. Danny White gets to decide whether the fun was worth the $100,000 conference fine.
Hyatt, indeed, had a spectacular game. Alabama never figured out what to do about the swift receiver. Six catches produced 207 yards. His five touchdowns tied the Southeastern Conference record. Two Tide safeties now know they can’t run as fast. For some reason, Tide coaches never changed the defensive concept.
Give this some thought:
Kentucky 6 0 0 0 – 6
Tennessee 7 20 10 7 – 44
Here are the headlines: Vols clobber Wildcats; Tennessee defense dominates; Hyatt sets touchdown record; Kentucky loses comparison of quarterbacks.
UK coach Mark Stoops told the truth. He said the better team won. He told his players 44-6 was no accident.
“Tennessee beat us in virtually every area, outcoached us, outplayed us.”
Georgia inflicted the first loss on Tennessee. It wasn’t awful but it hurt. Simply bouncing back wasn’t going to be enough. Now I ask you, did scoring 66 against Missouri mean Heup deliberately ran up the score?
Tennessee’s reserve offense put together a late scoring drive. A 58-yard pass from Joe Milton to freshman receiver Squirrel White put the ball on the Tigers’ 1. At issue was whether the Vols should have taken a knee in such a situation or was it OK to play football until the game was over.
The Vols played. Dylan Sampson scored. Thirty-six seconds remained. TV analyst Rick Neuheisel said the added touchdown could come back to haunt Heupel.
Kind, loving, charitable fans thought the Vols were very rude.
“Nine touchdowns and a field goal, a school-record 724 yards in total offense and quite a few style points,” said westwords at the time.
In celebration of Senior Day, Hooker delivered in high style – 25-of-34 for 355 yards and three TDs. He ran for 54 yards and another score. He became No. 5 on Tennessee’s career list with 55 TD passes in a season and three-fourths. We realized he might not catch No. 1 Peyton Manning. He had 89.
Hooker did match Manning in colorful post-game showmanship. He climbed a little ladder and played conductor for the Pride of the Southland band. Peyton did that on his Senior Day.
South Carolina 63, Tennessee 35 was among the all-time worst UT defensive performances. Some of us thought the Gamecocks couldn’t possibly score that many if all the Vols were trying.
The Jeremy Banks controversy, suspension, lack of defensive effort, devastating defeat, unforgettable? Add up all that was lost. Will you ever forget Hook’s knee blowing out?
Vanderbilt was some version of helpless. Tennessee set a record for long runs. Milton took care of the ball, played hit and miss, made a few big throws. Smart coaches devised a running game plan for foul weather.
Do you consider 2022 a good or great season or will it forever be what might have been?
Marvin West welcomes reader comments or questions. His address is [email protected].