The more we hype Tennessee — and I’ve contributed, having slotted the Big Orange at No. 7 in my Top 25 — the less hype-worthy it appears. The Volunteers were lucky beyond belief to beat Appalachian State in overtime Thursday night, not that Appy is any appetizer. Even before many toes have met leather, they’ve stamped themselves, in the words of ESPN’s Chris Low, “as college football’s biggest fraud.”
This makes two years running I’ve picked Tennessee to win the SEC East. Last year was a default choice — I didn’t think anybody else in the division would be much good. The Vols never came close, losing three of their first four league games. (The lone victory was over Georgia on the day Nick Chubb got hurt.) I picked them again this year because I thought they’d begun to sort things out. If Thursday was any indication, they’re still out of sorts.
Not for the first time, we check Tennessee’s 2015 worksheet: Blew a lead against Oklahoma, blew a lead against Florida, blew a lead against Arkansas, blew a lead against Alabama. Granted, those were four pretty good teams. (Also the lead against Bama was one point in the fourth quarter.) Still: The two best victories in Tennessee’s 9-4 season came against a team that wound up firing its coach (meaning Georgia) and Northwestern.
I didn’t vote in the poll at SEC Media Days, but those who did made Tennessee an overwhelming choice in the East. The Vols received 225 first-place votes; the other six teams received a total of 116. Again, there’s process-of-elimination at work: The bottom four teams in the division are awful, Florida collapsed at the end of last season and Georgia, as noted, is under new management. My reaction when I saw that poll: “That’s quite a mandate for a team that hasn’t won anything since 2007.”
Tennessee is 1-0 only because of a missed Appy PAT, a missed field goal, a terrible flare screen on second-and-1 and Jalen Hurd’s end-zone recovery of Joshua Dobbs’ fumble in OT. The Vols’ next game is against Virginia Tech at the Bristol Motor Speedway. By Oct. 15, they’ll have played Florida, Georgia, Texas A&M and Alabama. If they don’t get a lot better fast, they won’t be in anybody’s Top 25 for long.
I say again: The more I see of Tennessee, the more I wonder. I wonder about Mike DeBord, whose offense mustered 319 yards in four quarters plus overtime against Appy. I wonder if Dobbs, the preseason pick as the SEC’s second-best quarterback, is really the SEC’s second-best quarterback. Mostly I wonder about Butch Jones, about whom many wonder. He’s believed to have recruited very well. But can he, you know, coach? We’ll know by Oct. 15, and maybe sooner.