By Steve Williams
At the quarter pole of the 2014 University of Tennessee football season, Coach Butch Jones’ youthful Vols are 2-1 and in a pretty good position to accomplish their goal of qualifying for a post-season bowl game.
Extreme optimists also see a bigger prize out there, as Tennessee prepares for its first test in the Southeastern Conference this coming Saturday at Georgia.
Based on results from the first three weekends of play, the most likely scenario for the Vols to notch the six wins it would require to earn a bowl bid is adding Florida, Chattanooga, Kentucky and Vanderbilt to their win column. Of those four, only Vandy is a road game. And the Gators had to struggle to get past Kentucky in three overtimes at The Swamp.
As for the road to the SEC title game, the East Division, where the Vols roll, is not nearly as bumpy as the West. In fact, if Tennessee can find a way to get past Georgia, hold on to your hat.
The Vols couldn’t afford to lose either one of their first two games – against Utah State and Arkansas State – and they came away with victories in both at Neyland Stadium, with the first one played in front of a sellout crowd.
A much speedier defense caught the eye of UT fans in the season opener and Tennessee turned back the Aggies 38-7 in what many thought would be a tougher assignment.
The Vols didn’t follow the general rule that teams make the most improvement from Game 1 to Game 2 but still beat the Red Wolves 34-19, and Coach Jones felt prevailing on somewhat of an off day was a good sign.
Maybe the Vols had been guilty of looking ahead a time or two to the trip to Norman, Okla., to play the nationally ranked Sooners, and that affected their play against Arkansas State.
Big bad Oklahoma, a 21-point favorite and particularly nasty on defense, toppled Tennessee 34-10. The Sooners’ fourth quarter interception of a tipped pass and 100-yard touchdown return proved to be a 14-point swing in the final outcome.
In the week leading up to the Oklahoma game, there was talk in town about where an upset win would rank in Tennessee history. The fact that UT fans and the local media were even pondering an upset in Norman was an encouraging sign in itself for a program trying to bring an end to four losing seasons in a row.
But it didn’t take long for me to see a major upset wasn’t in the cards.
Oklahoma had a huge advantage in experience and size. Tennessee started true freshmen at right guard, right tackle and even at tight end on that side of the line. The other Vol linemen were red-shirt juniors with limited experience.
The Sooners’ advantage up front was to such a degree, I compared it to what it would probably be like if a Pee Wee team played a younger and smaller Grasscutter team in the Knox Metro Youth Football League or a high school varsity team played its JV squad.
Tennessee senior quarterback Justin Worley was tossed around like a rag doll. But to his credit, he showed heart and toughness as he kept bouncing back up. The entire team, for that matter, battled from start to finish. And when it was over, the Vols hurt, because they cared. It hasn’t always been that way in these tough times.
Other bright spots included the defense twice keeping the Sooners out of the end zone and forcing them to settle for field goals, which kept the score fairly close for much of the game.
A 40-yard catch and run by former CAK star Josh Smith pulled the Vols within 13-7 in the second quarter. True freshman running back Jalen Hurd showed a burst or two and former Ohio State Heisman Trophy winner Eddie George called him a “beast.”
What I didn’t like were Tennessee offensive plays designed to go East to West, instead of North to South, and too often killing a series.
Of course, Worley not running the ball in the zone-read option when he should have is nothing new. On one play, it looked like he could have run the ball into the end zone but instead threw an incomplete pass.
I’ve written before that I feel Coach Jones should use an offensive system that fits Worley, who is really a pro style quarterback, instead of trying to make Worley fit his zone-read offense.
After having a week off, an upset win over Georgia would put the Vols in first place in the SEC East and spark new and bigger goals.
A loss at Georgia probably means Tennessee better beat Florida at home on Oct. 4 to stay on track for at least a bowl game.