By Steve Williams
Many Tennessee football fans including myself weren’t sure what to expect from the Vols when they went into Saturday’s game against Ohio.
After the struggle to get past Appalachian State in the opener and the slow start before pulling away from Virginia Tech in the Battle at Bristol, we were still scratching our heads about this team.
It didn’t matter that Tennessee was favored by almost 28 points over Ohio. We hadn’t forgotten it took a fumble recovery in the end zone in overtime for UT, a 20-point favorite, to turn back Appy State 20-13 and escape the Mountaineers’ upset bid.
If anything, we might have expected another slow start. Tennessee fell behind Appy State 13-3 in the opener and was even worse in the beginning against Virginia Tech, trailing the Hokies 14-0 before racing to a 45-24 win.
As it turned out, Tennessee started fast against Ohio and roared to a 7-0 lead in the opening 38 seconds. For a few moments it felt like the Vols were headed for a big day. However, it ended up being another struggle and the 28-19 win also included injuries to some key players.
“We have to get a lot better in a hurry,” UT Coach Butch Jones told the SEC Network audience moments after the game.
So after the bumpy pre-conference ride, Tennessee is fortunately 3-0 and still has all of its goals in place. The only damage has been the Vols dropping a few spots in the national rankings, but they can make up for that in the games ahead.
And it starts with a four-game stretch that will define their season.
Yes, a month from now, the Vols, the preseason pick to win the SEC Eastern Division, will pretty much know where they stand.
First on the list is Florida. Those Gators come to town this coming Saturday in what most UT fans consider the Game of the Year. Losing 11 years in a row to the same foe will definitely bring out “Most Wanted” signs.
Two tough road trips follow – first to Athens to take on Nick Chubb and the Georgia Bulldogs Between the Hedges, then a first-ever visit to College Station, Tex., to play Texas A&M and its “12th Man.”
The fourth and last assignment lines up perfectly with the calendar this season as Alabama rolls into town on the Third Saturday of October, the way it used to be every season.
The air should be cool and crisp and the leaves red and orange for this SEC classic. If only the teams could once again face each wearing these colors, it would be perfect.
If Tennessee somehow comes into this game unbeaten against an undefeated and No. 1 ranked Alabama team, well, let’s just say anything could happen in Neyland Stadium that day.
The Vols will have an open date on Oct. 22 and surely will be ready for it.
Five games will still be left on Tennessee’s schedule, but none of them are expected to be difficult.
If the Vols end up having a banner season, they can trace the spark back to the opening play of the second quarter of Game 2 when Virginia Tech quarterback Jerod Evans mishandled the snap and Micah Abernathy recovered the fumble at the Hokies’ 5-yard line. That turnover changed the momentum of the game as Joshua Dobbs, on the very next play, tossed a touchdown pass to Jauan Jennings to cut the Hokies’ lead to 14-7 and the opportunistic Vols went on a 45-3 run.
Many in college football’s biggest crowd ever – 156,990 at Bristol Motor Speedway – couldn’t see what happened because they were so far away from the action, but they could feel it.
Tennessee would go on to recover four more Virginia Tech fumbles and Abernathy, a sophomore defensive back, finished with a school-record three recoveries and was named the SEC Defensive Player of the Week.
Fortunately, the coaching staff allowed Dobbs to do his thing and he responded with three scoring passes and a pair of TD runs. Somebody, please, hide the shackles.
Some of the Hokies’ turnovers were forced by the Vols’ ball-hawking play.
“We’ve talked about hunting the football and taking the ball away on defense and that’s been one of our main priorities,” pointed out Coach Jones after the game.
Kendal Vickers stripped the ball out in the fourth quarter that kept the Hokies spiraling.
“We’re going to need that as the season continues to move on,” Jones summed up.
Particularly over the next four weeks.