By Steve Williams
Tennessee’s football season is at the crossroads and the Butch Jones era at UT could be, too.
A win over Georgia this coming Saturday, however, would put the Vols back in the SEC Eastern Division race. But a loss would deflate the hopes of Tennessee players and fans and perhaps lead to more setbacks over the remainder of the season.
Beating the Bulldogs, who were picked the SEC East preseason favorites, is that crucial. Losing to Florida 26-20 made it that way. Losing the way it did in the Swamp made it that way for Jones’ and his staff’s coaching security.
Coming out of that game were many questions from UT fans and former players.
The Vols had the Gators on the ropes, but couldn’t apply the knockout punch.
Tennessee made a ton of mistakes.
Quinten Dormady didn’t look ready for a big-time SEC road game. He forced a pass that led to the first of three interceptions. Jarrett Guarantano needs more of an opportunity to compete for the starting job.
UT kickers Brent Cimaglia and Aaron Medley combined to miss three out of five field goal attempts.
Trailing 6-3 in the third quarter, Tennessee didn’t score from inside the Florida 1-yardline. How about a goal-line package with the quarterback under center in this situation?
A pass slipped through Marquez Callaway’s hands and was turned into a pick six that gave the Gators a 13-3 lead.
Trailing 20-17 with 1:06 left in the game, Tennessee had first and goal at the Florida 9, but John Kelly dropped a first down pass at the 3 that had all the makings of a go-ahead touchdown. After two more incomplete passes, the Vols had to settle for a tying field goal.
Then the last play! With UT’s defensive strategy geared to prevent Florida from getting in field goal range, the Gators dropped a bomb on Tennessee. We all know, in that situation, you just can’t let a receiver get behind the defense.
There were some bright spots in defeat.
Kelly ran with fury again. Pound for pound, he’s one of the best running backs in the nation.
Callaway showed again he’s a playmaker as a punter returner as well as a wide receiver.
Defensive back Justin Martin made one of the best hustle plays you will see all year when he raced to knock the ball out of Malik Davis’ hands inches from the goal line to prevent a Florida touchdown that would have increased the Gators’ lead to 20-3 with 10:45 remaining in the game.
It’s that kind of effort that makes Tennessee fans like myself continue to pull for this team.
Dormady made a great TD pass to tight end Ethan Wolfe that cut Florida’s lead to three points with 4:51 to go. And right after that, Rashaan Gaulden intercepted a batted pass at the Florida 41 to set up the Vols’ last offensive possession.
If Tennessee had defeated Florida and made an acceptable showing in its 17-13 win over Massachusetts, a 28-point underdog, the following week, the Vols would be riding a wave of momentum into this week’s Georgia game. And their title hopes, along with Jones’ coaching security, would be a lot stronger.
Instead, their backs are against the wall.