Did Tennessee’s season go up in smoke Saturday night in Columbia, S.C.?
With divisional implications at stake, the Volunteers (5-3, 2-3 SEC) turned into a pumpkin on Halloween weekend, losing 24-21 at South Carolina in the worst loss of the Butch Jones era.
They squandered a chance to keep pace with the SEC East-leading Florida Gators, stumbling from the opening kickoff and never recovering.
Tennessee — a two-touchdown favorite coming off a bye week — started slowly for the umpteenth time this season. At this point, anything else would be the surprise.
“Again, another slow start. I thought we were lethargic. We lacked energy on the sideline, and at times seemed disinterested and it starts with me. … You have to play inspired. You have to bring emotion on every snap.”
That’s Butch Jones talking about a Volunteers team that wants to get to Atlanta for the first time since 2007.
Or so they say.
Tennessee’s lifelessness was astounding Saturday night.
The Volunteers had a week to get rested and recharged. The schedule was in their favor. Key contributors were returning from injuries.
It didn’t matter.
Tennessee came out flat against one of the worst teams in the conference, committing penalties (9 for 87 yards), turnovers (3) and missing several tackles. Two years ago, Josh Dobbs launched his career at South Carolina, but the senior quarterback delivered his worst performance ever for Tennessee.
The Gamecocks deserve kudos for grabbing the game and taking it, but Saturday was really a microcosm of Tennessee’s not-so-subtle mediocrity all season. The Vols are sloppy. They’re poorly coached at times. Several notable players have regressed.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Tennessee entered the season a top 10 team chalked with veteran talent. This was the year Tennessee was officially back. During the first month of 2016, the Voodoo Vols survived against Appalachian State, Virginia Tech, Florida and Georgia, setting up a possible storybook season.
But the early miracle comebacks masked the fact Tennessee has underwhelmed for much of the season.
Injuries have played a factor during the three-game losing streak, but in eight games, Tennessee has played one dominant, complete half of football — and now that second-half thrashing over UF has simply become a footnote on a season suddenly off the rails.
The Volunteers are penalty-prone, turnover-happy and mentally broken.
“It’s a long football season. You can’t let one game define you. But we’re going to find out the competitive makeup of us and how we bounce back,” Jones said.
“Mark my words, there’s a lot of football to be played.”
Jones is technically correct.
Despite everything previously mentioned, Tennessee still has a decent shot at reaching the SEC Championship Game because the East is so awful.
The Volunteers — with remaining conference games against against Kentucky, Missouri and Vanderbilt — must win out and have Florida — with road games at Arkansas and LSU plus a home date with South Carolina — lose twice.
But so is Tennessee losing to Kentucky or falling on the road at Vanderbilt.
At this point, a rematch with Alabama shouldn’t even be the focus for Team120.
Tennessee needs to fix itself first.