KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee football fans probably needed a dose of perspective after Thursday night’s close call in Neyland Stadium, and watching opening week games provided it.
Down on the No. 9-ranked Vols following their 20-13 overtime escape against Appalachian State? Consider that at least six Top 25 teams will have fallen by the end of Monday night’s Ole Miss-Florida State game.
Too high on Tennessee? Alabama beat Southern Cal 52-6, and the Tide’s head coach left the stadium saying, “We need to get more players that can play winning football.”
The general consensus is Georgia looked better than any of the other teams in the SEC East Division with its 33-24 win over North Carolina.
The Bulldogs, however, could have easily lost if they hadn’t been on the right side of every close call. And, do we really know if the Tar Heels are better than the Mountaineers that Tennessee faced?
Scoff if you will, but one thing many seem to be overlooking is Appalachian State appears to have quietly built itself into a fringe Top-25 team, particularly if it beats Miami (Fla.) in a couple weeks.
Tennessee, meanwhile, has issues to address that might run deeper than meets the eye.
Quarterback Josh Dobbs was literally half the player Vols fans have become accustomed to seeing, finishing with negative yards rushing for the first time in his career.
There are two possibilities here: Dobbs not running was part of the game plan, or, Dobbs has an injury of some sort and UT coaches were trying to protect him.
One way or another, we’ll find out against Virginia Tech at 8 p.m. next Saturday in the “Battle of Bristol.”
The other alarming issue was the plodding, inefficient nature of Jalen Hurd, a marquee player who left his teammates in Knoxville this summer so he could train in California.
Hurd hit 23.1 miles per hour on a treadmill video that he put out in May, creating hype and buzz.
But on the Neyland Stadium turf, Hurd struggled to break a tackle, much less a sweat.
Hurd, who at 6-foot-4 and 240 pounds was bigger than every Appalachian State defender listed in the starting lineup except the Mountaineers’ 285-pound nose guard, didn’t break a run longer than 13 yards and failed to average 4 yards per carry.
There was no “power” element to Tennessee’s run game despite the Vols out-weighing the Mountaineers by some 50 pounds per player across the front line. UT ran the ball 21 times on first downs, and averaged 1.56 yards per carry Thursday night.
Tennessee’s offensive line was embarrassingly inefficient with costly penalties and uninspired blocking. The Vols were out-rushed by Appalachian State, and Dobbs was sacked twice.
The run game’s highlight was Hurd falling on a fumble in the end zone on one of the rare occasions Dobbs did run with the football.
But — Tennessee survived against a lesser-talented team on a weekend when teams like Mississippi State and LSU faltered.
The fact the Vols didn’t look like a top-10 team in their opener ultimately might be the best thing that could have happened for the team.
Tennessee’s players expressed a great deal of confidence in the preseason — a few bordering on arrogance — even as coach Butch Jones repeatedly stressed the team was not ready to play winning football.
Appalachian State provided a wake-up call.
It’s quite possible the Vols players overlooked the Mountaineers.
It’s also possible Tennessee isn’t as good as many — including the Vols themselves — once believed.
One game did not provide enough evidence to draw any conclusions, but it did leave us with questions about the offensive game plan, Dobbs’ health, Hurd’s mentality and the offensive line.
Mike Griffith covers Tennessee football for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s SEC Country and lives in Knoxville.