Receiving Gifts, Giving Few: Tennessee 45, Virginia Tech 24
For what felt like hours but was at most 45 minutes, Tennessee was a lap down after blowing a tire 50 laps into a 500-lap race. I have not watched more than ten NASCAR races since 2007, but this might be like the time Kurt Busch almost crashed into the pit road wall as the points leader at Homestead and then ended up winning the title. More accurately, this is like the time Tennessee slept through their opening kickoff alarm clock, which happened nine days ago. For it to really Feel Like ’98, it must first feel like 1983–2004, when Tennessee slept through a bunch of these out-of-conference games but always ended up winning fairly comfortably.
The route to this sizable win also felt familiar: generally forgettable performance aided significantly by the opponent’s mistakes and a lack of horrific mistakes on one’s own end. Virginia Tech had five turnovers, several personal fouls, multiple chop block penalties deep in their own territory, and a general lack of fundamentally sound football. Those are the things that take you to 23 losses in the last four years after having only 25 total in the nine years previous, as the Vols have, and that takes a long time to shake out of a program. They also happened to benefit Tennessee exceptionally well.
Tennessee didn’t commit many notable dumb penalties or awful plays, outside of the Traveon McMillian’s 69-yard touchdown run or Joshua Dobbs’ interception. I can only recall one personal foul and two other major penalties, both of which were legitimate pass interference calls on the Vols’ Justin Martin. There were longer-term issues — more on those in a second — but it could have been much worse. You take the gifts you get, and in a devilish version of Christmas spirit, you give away as little as possible.
Oh, and one Michael DeBord was utterly terrible outside of the second quarter. Only for that short 15-minute span when Tennessee was already trailing 14–0 did Big Game DeBord crack open his shell, take some NoDoz, and go to work.
Despite this, Tennessee exploded for 45 points only one week after struggling to score 20 against Appalachian State. I saw a similar phenomenon during DeBord’s tenure at Michigan frequently: a 17–3 win at Northwestern followed by 39 points against #1 Ohio State three weeks later. 3 points in Lloyd Carr’s final home game followed by 41 against Tim Tebow and Florida a month later. He does this. Out of nowhere, he will unveil an offense that pushes Tennessee’s normal boundaries and hints at internal creativity before shoving it back in the closet because it’s not necessary, or something. Two months of this:
Followed by this.
I despise him greatly while knowing that he will be coaching this team’s offense until he chooses to retire or until Butch Jones somehow realizes that many a good Group of Five coordinator is salivating to coach this much talent and get Alvin Kamara, Preston Williams, Tyler Byrd, Ethan Wolf, and others more touches. There are no reasons for people like me to be able to call three out of every four plays before the ball is snapped. But I digress: 2–0 is 2–0, 45 points is 45 points, and a baptism is a baptism.
Some other randomly collected notes: Bob Shoop’s defense looked very poor in the first quarter then looked fine enough after. Cameron Sutton will return a punt for a touchdown against Ohio. The Aaron Medley miss is forgivable and both a confirmation that any field goal attempt deeper than 45 yards should receive several rounds of questioning and brainstorming before going through with it. Joshua Dobbs has two modes of running: third-trimester pregnancy and normal football player. The second only comes out after he gets into the secondary, but the first can work and is hilarious to me.
Jalen Hurd to the right will be stopped by any athletic defensive line in the country. Alvin Kamara needs more touches. Emmanuel Moseley on Isaiah Ford in the third quarter made me throw a water bottle across the room. I feel like Derek Barnett does a lot of things you don’t notice on TV that makes him more effective than he looks. Secondary alternated between suck and not-suck, with an unfortunate amount of time spent on the former. Sheriron/Sherron/Sharon Jones is my favorite player-coach since I started watching Tennessee football and should receive the game ball. The scoreboard is cool. Having the most points on it is cooler.