Real UT season begins against Florida
KNOXVILLE — With halftime of Saturday’s game against Texas-El Paso just completed — Tennessee ahead 10-0 in a game it was projected to win by as many as 31 points — a call went out to one of the biggest Big Orange fans I know.
“So what do you think of your Vols?”
“What do you mean?” he replied.
“What’s the score?”
“The first half was so boring we’ve switched to the (Atlanta) Braves.”
Silly Volniac. If he’d only waited he could have seen his college football heroes explode for 14 points in the final half to wrap up a 24-0 victory over the winless Miners.
Instead, while watching the Bravos lose 7-1 to Washington, he missed that amazing 81-yard touchdown gallop down the left sideline by Tennessee running back Ty Chandler early in the third quarter. He also missed a 4-yard TD toss from quarterback Jarrett Guarantano to Jauan Jennings with 11:14 to go in the game. Oh, and let’s not forget kicker Brent Cimaglia’s three extra-point kicks and his 38-yard field goal to open the scoring. Or Tim Jordan’s 3-yard run a little more than four minutes into the second period.
Never mind that UTEP had lost previously to Northern Arizona by a 30-10 score and to Nevada-Las Vegas by a 52-24 total.
A 24-point victory margin is a 24-point victory margin and right in line with the margins turned in by the Lumberjacks and Rebels against that west Texas university.
Besides, as UT defensive lineman Kyle Phillips observed, “We don’t want anybody scoring on us.”
Mission accomplished, even if the real mission for
every Big Orange season begins this coming Saturday, when the Volunteers and first-year coach Jeremy Pruitt face their first Southeastern Conference opponent of the year in the Florida Gators.
“We better (improve),” Pruitt noted after this one, “because now the real season starts.”
If you wonder how the real season will go over these next six weeks against five SEC opponents, it’s tempting to say that you might want to check out the Braves. Or the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Mocs. Or the autumn leaves.
While the UT brass is to be highly praised for opening its doors for free to all those unfortunate souls displaced by Hurricane Florence, in some ways they got the kind of game they paid for.
Playing as it has thus far, through two gimme wins and one dispiriting loss to West Virginia, Tennessee may find it difficult to win any of those first six league games, but especially any one except Florida. Because the Gators also are breaking in a new coach, and they also struggled mightily in 2017 (4-7), and the game’s in Neyland 20 years after the Vols knocked off Florida on their way to the 1998 national championship, it’s tempting to say the Big Orange can stand 3-1 by late Saturday night.
And they might. The Gators have lost at home to an unranked Kentucky team and struggled early with underwhelming Colorado State on Saturday. Regardless of the relative scarcity of points on the Neyland scoreboard, the Vols defense did limit the Miners to 134 total offensive yards (175 yards below their average) and never let them get closer than the UT 33-yard line, and that only after the Vols fumbled a UTEP punt.
Yet even those numbers didn’t especially please Pruitt.
“We had no turnovers on defense, and it’s going to be hard to win in the SEC moving forward if we’re not creating any turnovers,” he groused. “We’re going to have to be a team that creates a bunch of turnovers.”
That said, the Vols hadn’t been committing turnovers on offense before the Miners came to town. Three fumbles (two of them lost) changed that, but this team still appears to value the football, which is a necessity when your margin for error is as slender as UT’s this season.
What is becoming more clear each week is the impact Pruitt’s attention to detail and obsession with each week of preparation being exactly like the other week is having on his team.
Four of the five players the Vols brought to the interview room following the game spoke of making every day in practice like every other.
Said wide receiver Brandon Johnson of the expected excitement of Florida week: “You can always feel the atmosphere change around you as far as the fans. As for us, nothing changes. Preparation is the same.”
Said Phillips of the need to play cleaner football, especially in regard to penalties: “In (the SEC), one mistake can cost you a game.”
As Pruitt said, the real games start this weekend. Florida. Then Georgia. Then Auburn. Then Alabama. Then South Carolina.
“Are we ready as a football team?” Pruitt asked. “When you turn the ball over two times and don’t get any turnovers, make eight penalties — probably 10 if you count the ones they declined — it would be hard to beat anybody in the SEC playing like that.”
Almost as hard as watching it.