Perhaps Tennessee was intoxicated by the hype, even mesmerized by it.
And it’s true that we all tend to overreact based on what we see in the first week of the college football season. So it’s possible the No. 9-ranked Vols aren’t as listless, undisciplined and disinterested as they looked for much of Thursday’s season-opening, 20-13 overtime escape against a game Appalachian State team that only moved up to the FBS ranks two years ago.
Then again, if a brick looks like a brick, feels like a brick and sinks like a brick, then chances are it’s probably a brick.
The Vols chunked up a big ugly brick in their most anticipated debut in more than a decade, and even though they survived, they get the early award as college football’s biggest fraud.
Naturally, Tennessee coach Butch Jones wasn’t apologizing after the win. Good luck finding any coach who’s going to apologize for a win. But the tone in his voice was telling. He knows this is a team that still has a ways to go and probably isn’t ready to take on all comers just yet.
“On a night where anything and everything went wrong, we found a way to win,” Jones said.
What do we really make of this team after so much hype in the offseason and so many grandiose expectations? To be fair, we’ll better be able to answer that a month from now.
But one game into the 2016 season, what we do know about the Vols is that they’re good at recovering their own fumbles. They managed to fall on two in the fourth quarter and overtime -- the last one resulting in the winning touchdown after senior quarterback Josh Dobbs vaulted toward the end zone on third down and was tattooed. With Appalachian State players all around the ball, Tennessee’s Jalen Hurd was somehow able to recover in the end zone. Earlier in the fourth quarter, Hurd fumbled, but the Vols again got it back.
“We know how to overcome adversity,” Tennessee cornerback Cam Sutton said. “It’s something we talked about all offseason, leading up to this point. Adversity is going to hit and strike at any moment. It just happened to be the first game. ... We’re still sticking together and still playing together for each and every one of us.”
The good news for the Vols is that they still have plenty of opportunities to shake the fraudulent label. Nobody’s going to remember this stinker against the Mountaineers -- who are anything but a pushover -- if the Vols can go on and handle their business against Virginia Tech, Florida, Georgia and the rest of the SEC in the coming weeks.
But there’s also a heavy dose of bad news: Is there anything you can possibly take away from Thursday’s game that gives even the most diehard Tennessee fan hope that the Vols can live up to the hype and navigate their way to an SEC championship game appearance?
Jones made sure to “educate” the media about Appalachian State in his postgame news conference.
“We played a really good football team,” Jones said. “You don’t win 17 of 19 games if you’re not a good football team, and I have the utmost respect for them. Did we do some things that were uncharacteristic? Absolutely. And I can guarantee you this: We will get them corrected.”
As gallant an effort as it was by Appalachian State, the Mountaineers also helped the Vols plenty. In fact, had it not been for a missed extra point, there quite possibly never would have been an overtime. And that’s not to mention Appalachian State’s brutal mismanagement of the clock at the end of regulation.
Either way, Tennessee is not the ninth-best team in the country, The ninth-best team in the SEC, maybe, but not the country. At least, not now.
It’s another reminder to all of us -- fans, coaches, players, media -- that games aren’t played on paper.
For all of Tennessee’s talent, there were rumblings coming out of preseason camp that there were real concerns about the offensive line, and that proved true Thursday. The Vols have a long way to go up front offensively. For that matter, there has to be real concern on both lines of scrimmage, especially given some of the running room Appalachian State had.
Dobbs made a few big throws to bring the Vols back and is one heck of a competitor, but the passing game, as a whole, still looks shaky.
There were also a couple of breakdowns on special teams, including Sutton’s muff on a punt return and poor coverage on a long punt return by the Mountaineers.
A season is never defined by one game. But this game, albeit the first one, has rocked Rocky Top back to reality.