Vols didn’t get better as season went along

Marvin Westwestwords

Sometimes the truth really hurts.

We never expected this to be an outstanding Tennessee football team. Too many key components of the surprising 2022 season moved on.

This was supposed to be a good team, reflecting growth from Josh Heupel’s third year of coaching. As the main man said, these Volunteers were going to get better as the season went along – instruction, development, experience.

It didn’t happen.

If Vanderbilt doesn’t pull a rabbit out of a hat, if this team finishes 8-4, that will be OK with me. How the team looked on certain Saturdays wasn’t good enough – at Florida, second half at Alabama, all of the Missouri game and the last 59 minutes and 45 seconds against Georgia.

If the highlight of 2023 is really the six-point victory at Kentucky, so be it, even though the Wildcats haven’t beaten anybody with a winning record. Helping Jimbo Fisher cash in counts but it was no big deal, just $75 million or so. There was a hint of satisfaction in partial revenge over South Carolina.

There should be no condemnation of Tennessee effort. The Vols never quit. You can fuss about strategy and execution if you so choose. You can fret because Nico was never thrown into the fire. You can second-guess any number of fourth-down decisions.

Injuries exposed the lack of depth. There was some bad luck. The Vols had to get by Saturday without two offensive tackles and some other people who have been lost along the way. Yes, injuries are part of football. Having replacements ready is part of coaching. But, but, but … it’s really hard to play without players.

Lack of depth hurts two ways. Where are the young people Josh has recruited? Is their progress up to speed? Will they eventually be good enough to win big games?

If not, why not? Evaluation errors? Coaching?

Dolly Parton sings a chorus of Rocky Top during a break in the game. (Photo By Emma Corona/Tennessee Athletics)

Why are the solid soldiers who stayed after the Jeremy Pruitt purge still Volunteer mainstays? We thought most of the top talent fled, the Henry To’o To’o-types brought in by recruiter-of-the-year Brian Niedermeyer.

Do you realize there remains a Vol or three with ties to long-ago Butch Jones? Other veterans have come through the transfer portal. Indeed, this is a senior team.

History tells us Tennessee is a member in almost good standing of the powerful Southeastern Conference. Recent results tell us the Volunteers are far behind current leaders. The gap holds steady. Georgia has won six in a row. It says here the catch-up mission is not impossible.

That was one fine 75-yard run by Jaylen Wright on the first play Saturday. Blockers did what they are supposed to do, create an opening. Jaylen zipped through and outran all who thought they could catch him.

Hate to tell you the Vols gained 55 yards rushing on 24 carries after that, the rest of the day. The passing game wasn’t much. Tennessee’s total offense was 277, low for the season. Makes sense, Georgia is the best team in the league.

“That’s a really good football team,” said Heupel. “What they’ve done is special. We’ve got a ways to go.”

So, the Vols won the first 15 seconds. Alas and alas, Georgia won the remainder of the game, 38-3. It wasn’t all that close. Bulldog quarterback Carson Beck was much better than Vol quarterback Joe Milton. Bulldog receivers were better. Well, I’ll cut Squirrel some slack.

Beck was outstanding. Bulldog Dillion Bell was a show-off. He caught passes for 90 yards and one touchdown and threw a touchdown pass. Most of you could have completed that play. The target was wide open.

Secondary? No comparison. Both Georgia lines played better.

Tennessee overall defense? Georgia converted nine of 13 third downs. That’s even better than Missouri did. There is no way to win if you allow endless drives.

This is the capsule summation of the Tennessee problem. Georgia has more and better players. Tennessee has long recruited Georgia as if it is part of Tennessee. How often do you think the Vols beat the Bulldogs for No. 1 in-state prep stars?

Chip Kell and Eric Berry are two.

Parting thought: Nico Iamaleava had better be good. How long Heupel is coach may be tied to how much more he can do than Milton has done. Heupel probably realizes Nico is the future. Maybe he’ll get to play against Vanderbilt.

Parting thought 2: Kirby Smart made no effort to run up the score. Meanwhile, the Volunteers are accumulating goodwill. They went out of their way to help validate Georgia superiority.

To win a third national championship in a row, the Bulldogs must first get into the tournament. Alabama and the SEC title game just might be in the way.

Parting thought 3: I am inexperienced as an entertainment reporter but I thought it was great theater to have Peyton escort Dolly into a star position in the south end zone at Neyland Stadium, in front of UT students, the UT band and UT choir for a rocky rendition of “Rocky Top.”

I do believe there were technical difficulties. Parton said the sound feed went out and she couldn’t hear the music because the stadium crowd was so loud.

She said she sure does like Peyton and “It’s just great to be home.”

Vol fans see Manning as the all-time great but nobody suggested he join Dolly in a duet.

Marvin West welcomes comments or questions from readers. His address is marvinwest75@gmail.com.


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