KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Orange-clad fans streamed out of Neyland Stadium late Thursday night in shock, their conversations at a minimum with no one knowing exactly what to say.
SEC East Division favorite Tennessee won the game, pulling out a 20-13 overtime victory over upset-minded Appalachian State in the SEC Network-televised game.
But it wasn’t the sort of near-upset anyone could call a fluke.
The Mountaineers were the more physical and better-prepared of the two teams, out-rushing the No. 9-ranked Vols 184 yards to 127 yards.
Coach Butch Jones said it was the kind of game where anything and everything that could happen, happened, but that’s not entirely true.
Tennessee had more luck on its side than Appalachian State.
The Vols fumbled the ball four times and recovered three of them, including what proved to be the most pivotal play of the game, Josh Dobbs’ fumble into the end zone that Jalen Hurd recovered for a touchdown in overtime.
Tennessee was indeed fortunate to win.
Here are five thoughts the morning after:
1. The offensive line is the team’s biggest concern
UT linemen averaged 6-foot-5, 307 pounds while Appalachian State’s D-Line was 6-1, 255. But the Vols could not establish the run, despite all that size and supposed might. This is an area Jones and Mike DeBord must address immediately, whether that be with formations or play calls. It’s also a gut check for the UT linemen, who got pushed around by a Sun Belt team on national television.
2. The Vols left the game healthy and wiser
Jones stressed staying fresh in fall camp, to the extent of giving several established players multiple days off. It nearly cost him the opener, but it didn’t — and so now it’s a positive that players like Shy Tuttle and Kyle Phillips didn’t play. DeBord got to see how his backs played under the lights and can now manage the carries more appropriately, while Bob Shoop had discovered the weak points in his defense by halftime. There’s no need for panic in Knoxville.
3. Appalachian State is a very good team
Tennessee fans are taking heat on social media about their “overrated” team, but few are talking about the possibility that Appalachian State is an underrated team worthy of top 25 consideration. The Mountaineers might not lose another game this season, particularly once they get past Miami (Fla.) on Sept. 17. It’s a program that has redshirted several players since making the jump to the FBS ranks, and his is it’s target year.
4. Tennessee stars weren’t shining
Three of the team’s best players — Josh Dobbs, Cam Sutton and Jalen Hurd — put the ball on the turf and let their teammates down with sub-par performances. Sutton atoned for his fumbled punt return with a soaring interception that swung the momentum in the second half. Dobbs said after the game he merely needs to play within himself, and that means tucking and running more often. Hurd has bigger issues, his offseason training in California appearing to fail him from a speed and power standpoint.
5. The Vols’ defense could be special
Consider, Tennessee only allowed one sustained touchdown drive to Appalachian State — the other was on a short field after Sutton’s fumbled punt. The defense played without its most active tackler, Jalen Reeves-Maybin, after he was disqualified in the first quarter for targeting. UT’s defense didn’t have much margin for error with the offense struggling, and it came through with a second-half shutout.
Mike Griffith covers Tennessee for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s SEC Country and lives in Knoxville.