Hours before Tennessee and Appalachian State kicked off in Neyland Stadium, I picked the SEC team with the most to lose in Week 1:
As a top-10 team with sky-high expectations, Tennessee gets the nod. Appalachian State won 11 games last season, and the program has knocked off a giant in its own house once before. This game shouldn’t be close — most Vegas lines favor the Vols by 20.5 points — so even a narrow win could hurt Tennessee’s perception.
Well, look what we have here.
Scraping past the Mountaineers in a sloppy 20-13 overtime victory damaged national notions of the Vols, sure. Cries of “overrated” showered every corner of social media Thursday night.
But that should be the least of this program’s worries. Returning nearly every offensive starter from last year’s nine-win team, including an All-SEC tailback and most of its O-line, Tennessee averaged 4.3 yards per rush on 43 carries against App State. Its first six possessions ended like this: field goal, punt, punt, punt, interception, punt.
Heck, the game-winning touchdown in overtime was scored when Jalen Hurd recovered a Josh Dobbs goal-line fumble. This is straight rejection:
— Jesse Re Simonton (@JesseReSimonton) September 2, 2016
With all the talent on this roster, you cannot defend such an utterly miserable excuse for offensive football.
Dobbs (16 of 29 passing, 192 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT) is the easy target here. Most of that production came via a 67-yard touchdown pass on play action, in which 6-foot-3 Josh Malone beat 5-foot-10 freshman corner Clifton Duck in single coverage. He looked shaky, out of his element in front of the home crowd and a distant cry from the player some had billed as a long shot Heisman Trophy contender. This is not the lack of poise you expect from the senior leader.
But while Dobbs draws attention, the true foundation of Tennessee’s success last season was the offensive line, and the interior of that group was victimized by App State. Backs were hit in the backfield. Dobbs was dashing left and right. The Mountaineers accounted for two sacks, five tackles for loss, two forced fumbles and pressure galore.
Mountaineers quarterback Taylor Lamb’s lack of last-second clock judgment sent the game to overtime and gave Tennessee the extra chance it needed. This was a gift the Vols didn’t deserve, but they accepted, survived and advanced.
In that sense, App State provided a desperately-needed wake up call for Tennessee, the prevailing SEC East favorite.
Because no matter how horrible the hype train looks, it is not off the tracks. The Vols are 1-0 and get another week to fix this. They would not be the first team to sleepwalk through an early season non-conference game, get its act together and then win a mediocre SEC East (see: Missouri vs. Indiana, 2014).
But College Football Playoff? We’ve only gotten one glance, but this test run tells us the Vols are bound for a different destination in 2016.
And if they cannot address these issues by the time Florida, Georgia, Texas A&M and Alabama show up on the schedule, well, Butch Jones’ house of bricks might start shaking on Rocky Top.