Perspective: Some found reasons for optimism in the Tennessee football opener. Others saw only the flaws. To me, the Volunteers make it seem like everything is uphill. The program has been trying to work its way back to even since Philip Fulmer was pushed aside in 2008.
Tennessee’s full-time and interim coaches who followed (seven) have a composite record of 73-75.
There are many worse things possible than walloping Bowling Green without looking crisp and precise. Think how Vanderbilt’s three or four most faithful fans feel today as they reconsider what East Tennessee State did to spoil their weekend.
Vandy spent $415,000 and the cost of 60 hotel rooms to bring ETSU to Nashville for alumnus Clark Lea’s debut as head coach of the Commodores. Only 22,029 paid to get in. Some exited early. The visiting Buccaneers won in a romp.
Perspective 2: Pitt has good and bad experience against Josh Heupel’s up-tempo offense. It upset Central Florida in 2019. The Panthers, heavy underdogs, finished with one more point but 10 more first downs.
Kenny Pickett, now in his fifth year at quarterback, has fond memories of that adventure. He had led an 11-play comeback drive to within four yards of the goal. Fifty-six seconds remained. Pitt called a trick play. Wide receiver Aaron Mathews threw to Pickett in the end zone. There wasn’t much celebration. Pittsburgh fans had given up and gone away.
Heupel said he “couldn’t believe Pickett is still around. He’s been there forever. He has continued to grow as a playmaker from the first time I saw him. He has great command and understanding of what they’re doing and is a really good decision-maker.
“He’s got the ability to make plays, too, uniquely able to extend and create plays… They put the ball in his hands a bunch and trust him. You see him play at a really high level.”
Tennessee has one obvious advantage. Defensive coordinator Tim Banks faced Pitt and Pickett three times as Penn State’s co-defensive coordinator.
Perspective 3: Pitt was a 38-point favorite against UMass last Saturday. Pat Narduzzi’s Panthers won, 51-7. The winners outgained the losers by about 400 yards. The defense applied serious pressure and considerable hurt. The Minutemen, supposedly better than Bowling Green, have lost 12 in a row.
Tennessee fell two or three points short of matching the betting line. Can you believe a West Tennessee investor lost $220,000 on the Vols and called it pocket change?
More perspective …
After watching and rewatching the Pitt victory, my conclusion is what Tennessee did in the opener probably won’t be good enough to win Game 2.
Pickett projects as the best quarterback on the field Saturday. Pitt’s up-front defense is very aggressive. That will be a test for the Vol offensive line. It could mean Tennessee quarterback Joe Milton will have a couple or maybe three seconds to read the field and make decisions. He had all evening in the opener and still managed to overlook open receivers.
Tennessee running backs Tiyon Evans and Jabari Small made a bigger first impression than any runners I saw in Pitt colors. Strange that Vol linebacker Juwan Mitchell, prominent import from Texas, didn’t make a tackle.
Strange part 2 that the Vols couldn’t find a way to head off Bowling Green’s rugby punts that hit and rolled. Back in the old days, there was such a thing as two returners deep when there was no threat from the opposition.
Cooper Mays’ ankle injury may or may not be serious. The starting center was replaced by guard Jerome Carvin in the opener. Ollie Lane, long-ago standout at Gibbs High, filled the guard vacancy.
Heupel said Carvin did a good job if you don’t count the holding penalties on consecutive plays. The coach didn’t seem surprised that Lane “did some really positive things.”
Pending 2 …
Outside linebacker Byron Young might be Tennessee’s best defender. Byron Young might or might not play against Pitt. He didn’t play against Bowling Green because of an eligibility issue that has not been resolved.
In 2017, between high school in South Carolina and a job with Dollar General in Georgia, Byron attended Gulf Coast Prep Sports Academy in Alabama for a few minutes. He played in two football games. The operation closed. Young moved on.
That interlude did not appear on Byron’s transcript from Georgia Military College. We don’t know who helped Tennessee’s compliance office discover it. We do know that Auburn, Florida, Georgia and LSU were among the schools seriously wanting Young when Tennessee signed him.
Heupel said UT is working through the eligibility process.
“Preparing like he’ll be back. We’ll get word at some point this week from the NCAA.”
Marvin West welcomes reader comments or questions. His address is [email protected]