I saw my first SEC game in 1969. (Kentucky beat Archie Manning.) I covered my first SEC game in 1976. (Kentucky beat LSU.) My first SEC road assignment was a game in Birmingham in 1980. (Kentucky lost to Alabama 45-0.) I was by far the youngest among 40 or so semi-reputable journalists traversing the South via a plane of dubious provenance on the 1977 SEC Skywriters Tour. I interviewed Bryant. I saw Herschel as a freshman. I’ve had much fun with the Evil Genius. I’ve been around. I’ve seen stuff.
I’ve never seen a team like Tennessee.
I’ve seen good teams. I’ve seen bad teams. I’ve seen good teams that sometimes played bad and vice versa. I’d never seen one that, after multiple viewings, left me wondering which it is: Good? Bad? Neither? Both?
Here was the collective halftime score of the past three Tennessee games I’ve covered: Opponents 52, Volunteers 17. That aggregate even flattered the Orange, which scored last in two of those halves. It trailed Florida 21-0 last September and Georgia 17-0 the next week. On Labor Day night, the Vols trailed Georgia Tech 28-14 with 12 minutes remaining.
At some point in each of those games, the thought occurred: Tennessee is terrible. Except …
Tennessee won all three games.
I’ve not sure this comparison fits, but it’s all I’ve got: Tennessee reminds me of an unfettered basketball team. I’m thinking of the wild and woolly Philadelphia 76ers of Julius Erving, George McGinnis, Doug Collins, World B. Free and Darryl Dawkins – who weren’t coached much, but who had talent to burn, which they often did. They’d fool around and fall 20 points behind, whereupon they’d go, “Hmmm. Interesting.” Then they’d start to play, and when they got around to playing they were incredible. They reached the 1977 NBA finals and led Portland and Bill Walton 2-0. They lost the next four games. They came close to being champions, but they couldn’t be champions because they were unsound.
These Vols haven’t been and won’t be the champions of anything. (Except, maybe, life.) They beat Florida and Georgia last year and didn’t win the SEC East, which is hard to do. They’re 3-1 as we speak, but it’s a 3-1 that might be 1-3. Then again, they also could be 4-0. That’s the part of Tennessee that drives us, and I expect Butch Jones, nuts. When his team finally rouses itself, it looks like a team. It’s just that it takes so doggone long.
Football teams practice way more than they play. Their coaches watch film, chart tendencies, formulate a scheme. You know that trash can Tennessee has on the sideline to store footballs gained through turnovers? That same bin doubles as the receptacle for wadded-up game plans. Because Tennessee’s game plans NEVER WORK. The Vols scout and drill and cogitate, and nothing goes right until they've no choice but to wing it. If that’s not an indictment of coaching, my name’s not Pappy Waldorf.
Which, among many other things, is weird. Jones did nice work at Cincinnati, and he swapped out the unloved Mike DeBord for a new offensive coordinator (Larry Scott, who has been worse) and defensive coordinator Bob Shoop is highly regarded. Given eight months to prepare for Tech, Shoop’s defenders yielded 655 yards, 535 on the ground. In the history of football, had any team surrendered 535 yards rushing and won?
In the span of 51 weeks, Shoop’s defense was breached for what should have been two game-losing touchdown passes of at least 47 yards inside the final 15 seconds – and neither was a throw-it-up-and-hope-for-a-tip Hail Mary. Last October, Georgia’s Riley Ridley ran through the Tennessee secondary, same as Florida’s Tyrie Cleveland did two weeks ago in Gainesville. In neither case was a Vol close enough to interfere with the receiver, which given the alternative (i.e., losing) would have been the smart play. How does that happen?
And yet: Tennessee beat Georgia after the Ridley catch and beat Tech despite being outgained by 286 yards. As Paul Johnson said, “When they got rolling in the second half, there wasn’t much stopping them.” The same happened at Florida, where the Vols scored three points in the first 51 minutes and 17 – and it should have been 21 – in the next eight.
The temptation is great to say that Georgia, which is more talented and much better-coached, will win by two touchdowns in Knoxville. That said, Tech should have won by two touchdowns, and so should Florida. Just when you’ve decided the Vols can’t play a lick, they leave you wondering, “How’d they do that?” To paraphrase the lovely song by Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter: Tennessee, Tennessee, craziest team I ever did see.