Tennessee traveled to Columbia, S.C. on Saturday and was throttled, 63-38, in a game that ended the Vols’ playoff hopes. Here are 10 things that stand out.
1.) The 30th anniversary
We wrote about this earlier this week. It was 30 years ago that Tennessee traveled to Williams-Brice Stadium and suffered one of the worst losses to South Carolina in UT history. Coach Sparky Woods’ Gamecocks upset Tennessee 24-23 to end the Vols’ hopes of securing the inaugural SEC East title, and Johnny Majors was fired after the game.
Obviously, tonight’s loss was worse than that 1992 loss. But coming on the 30th anniversary of that loss is just … weird. It’s also a little weird that Sparky Woods — an Oneida native — wound up at South Carolina as the head coach because he was fired by Majors in Majors’ first year on the job in Knoxville after he dared to tell Majors he didn’t like the orange helmet look that Majors had proposed. Tennessee didn’t wear the orange helmets, as it turned out, but they did wear them Saturday night in Columbia, for the first time in program history.
2.) Tim Banks’ very bad day
There’s no way to sugar-coat this: Tennessee defensive coordinator Tim Banks should be fired. Not after the season. Immediately. So should secondary coach Willie Martinez. The Vols’ defense hasn’t been good all season, though it hadn’t looked spectacularly bad except for the games against Florida and Alabama. Tonight, though, it was beyond bad. It was despicably awful. Inexcusably inept. Pathetic. It’s hard to grasp an adjective that’s appropriate.
But here’s the thing: Spencer Rattler, the South Carolina quarterback, had thrown eight touchdown passes all season, coming into tonight’s game. He threw six tonight. He had thrown for 200 or more yards against one Power 5 team all season. He threw for 438 tonight. South Carolina entered with the nation’s 93rd-ranked offense. It put up 606 yards.
Heads have to roll after a performance like that. I said earlier this season that Tim Banks wasn’t going to be the guy to help Tennessee get to the next level. Then he sort of won me over with his unit’s performance against LSU and Kentucky, and even Georgia.
But tonight was just awful against one of the worst offenses the Vols have faced all season.
3.) A complete choke job
In fairness to Banks, it wasn’t just the defense that was bad. Before leaving the game with what appeared to be a serious injury in the fourth quarter, Hendon Hooker had completed only 25 of 42 passes for 247 yards — one of the poorest showings of the season for the Heisman hopeful. Tennessee’s offensive line had penalties at crucial times. Receivers dropped balls. A kickoff went out of bounds. A punt was shanked. It was just a bad performance all the way around.
There’s no other way to say it: Tennessee choked.
4.) More than meets the eye?
So it makes you wonder. If the Tennessee defense had by far its worst game of the season against one of the worst offenses it has faced all season, and if all of the other things went wrong on the same night, is there something going on that we — as outsiders — don’t know about? Something in the locker room?
We’ll probably never know the answer to that question, of course, but linebacker Jeremy Banks — who, incidentally, is the heart and soul of the Vols’ defense — did not play Saturday, for undisclosed reasons. It apparently was not injury-related. There were rumors of infighting, which would certainly explain the way the Vols’ underperformed. But we simply don’t know, and never will.
5.) Not very good on the road
Tennessee has played four road games this season. At Pittsburgh, the Vols were inexplicably bad offensively, and were bailed out by their defense. At LSU, Tennessee exploded for a 40-13 win. At Georgia, Tennessee never got on track and lost by two touchdowns. And then tonight.
With the exception of the game in Baton Rouge, Tennessee hasn’t played well on the road this season — at all.
Next week’s regular season finale is on the road at Vanderbilt. The Commodores were riding the SEC’s longest losing streak but have suddenly beaten Kentucky and Florida in back-to-back weeks. And Tennessee may be without its star quarterback. It’s a recipe for an embarrassing finish to the season.
6.) The Tillman curse
I said this after Tennessee’s loss to Georgia: The Vols are a worse team with Cedric Tillman in the lineup.
That isn’t a knock on Tillman. He’s an immensely talented player; one of the best playmakers on the team. He’s going to make millions of dollars playing football on Sunday afternoons.
But here’s what I mean: When Tillman is in the lineup, Hooker tends to place too much faith in him. Hooker looks for Tillman a split second too long, and it throws off the timing of the play.
We saw it in the game at Pitt, when Tennessee’s offense struggled so mightily. Then Tillman was injured the following week against Akron, and didn’t return to the lineup until the game against Kentucky. He played only sparingly that week, before making a complete return against Georgia.
It probably isn’t coincidence that Tillman missed the Missouri game and Tennessee’s offense was running at full throttle.
7.) Milton of old
Joe Milton looked dreadful at times last season, before finally being benched for Hooker. But in mop-up duty this season, he has looked fantastic. His apparent improvement had many of us hoping for great things from Milton next season, when he returns for his final year of eligibility as the heir apparent to the QB1 position.
Tonight, though, the Milton we all remember from 2021 showed up. He finished 4 of 8 for 108 yards, and had a couple of beautiful throws, but he also over-threw several receivers.
Throw in the fact that Tennessee is losing most of its other offensive weapons after this season, and all the signs point towards a big step back on offense in 2023.
8.) A hurtful loss in many ways
Despite TCU’s fortunate win over Baylor, and Michigan’s lucky win over Illinois, earlier Saturday afternoon, Tennessee was still in an excellent spot to claim one of the four coveted playoff spots. Obviously that went out the window and, with it, the opportunity to compete for the program’s first national championship since 1998.
That alone makes this the most significant loss for Tennessee in a lot of years. You have to go all the way back to the 2001 SEC Championship Game against LSU to find a loss that stings so badly for Vols fans.
But there was more at stake than just a playoff appearance — as if that wasn’t enough. Hooker was probably not going to win the Heisman Trophy after losing to Georgia. He’s now effectively out of the Heisman race; the award will likely go to Ohio State’s CJ Stroud.
Also, Tennessee’s hopes for a New Years 6 bowl game are likely out the window. Going into today’s game, the assumed worst-case scenario for Tennessee was a Sugar Bowl appearance in New Orleans, likely against Kansas State from the Big 12.
Now, though, it’s very likely that Tennessee drops to at least the Citrus Bowl. Why? The Sugar Bowl is likely to take Alabama. That’s not guaranteed; after all, Tennessee and Alabama both have two losses, and the Vols beat the Crimson Tide. But Alabama travels just as well as Tennessee, and will be ranked more highly. So that will probably drop Tennessee to the Citrus Bowl, against a Big Ten team (maybe Illinois).
However, if LSU doesn’t get into the playoffs — which won’t happen if the Tigers don’t beat Georgia in the SEC Championship Game, and may not happen even if they do — then the Tigers may very well secure a spot in the Citrus Bowl and knock Tennessee even lower.
After the Sugar Bowl and Citrus Bowl make their picks, the SEC assigns teams to the remaining bowls that the conference is affiliated with, including the Liberty Bowl, Texas Bowl, ReliaQuest Bowl, Las Vegas Bowl, Gator Bowl and Music City Bowl.
There’s a very real chance that Tennessee’s hopes of a top-tier bowl game were quashed tonight.
9.) What makes the loss so disappointing
You’ll hear a lot of people say that Tennessee is still 9-2, which no one predicted at the beginning of the season, and therefore it has been a successful year.
That’s true, of course. Let’s not forget that 2022 will go down as the first time since 2004 that Tennessee beat Alabama and Florida — its two biggest rivals in the modern era — in the same season. Throw in the ascension to the top of the College Football Playoff rankings, a lopsided win over SEC West champion LSU, and a dominating performance against a solid Kentucky team, and it has been a memorable season for Tennessee. It can end as a 10-win season if the Vols knock off Vanderbilt.
But it’s okay to be disappointed, if you’re a Tennessee fan. It’s not that Vol fans have suddenly become spoiled or forgotten the turmoil the program has been through since last winning the SEC East in 2007. It’s because this year’s team took care of the big obstacles in front of it — beating Pitt on the road, beating Florida, beating Alabama, beating LSU on the road, beating Kentucky — and put itself in position for such big things, only to stumble so dramatically.
A narrow loss against South Carolina would’ve been bitterly disappointing, but not terribly surprising. Life on the road is a beast in the SEC. But nobody — absolutely nobody — saw such a beatdown of epic proportions coming tonight, and it happened against one of the worst teams in the SEC. South Carolina was a three-touchdown underdogs. Just to lose to the Gamecocks would have gone down as one of the biggest upsets in Tennessee football history. To give up 63 points, and to lose by 25 points, is simply unbelievable.
It’s okay to be upset.
10.) Please destroy the orange helmets
“Why would you want to change anything about Tennessee?” Sparky Woods asked in 1977, when John Majors was hired to coach the Vols and first proposed wearing orange helmets.
Forty-five years later, Tennessee wore orange helmets for the first time. Hopefully, the Vols wore orange helmets for the last time against South Carolina.
Woods was right, you know. Why would you want to change anything about Tennessee?
I don’t believe in curses. I don’t think Tennessee lost because the orange helmets were debuted. And I don’t think Tennessee will throw away the orange helmets because of how the game turned out. After all, the Vols didn’t win the first time fans checkered Neyland Stadium, nor did they win the first time they wore smokey grey jerseys.
But I’m a firm believer that the best brands in college football don’t need gimmicks. How many times do you see Alabama break out alternative uniforms? How about never? Alabama just shows up in its old school garb and wins games. Because Alabama is an iconic brand that doesn’t have to do anything to capture the imagination of the college football world.
Tennessee is also an iconic brand in college football. Tennessee doesn’t need orange helmets.
And count me as one fan who will forever associate the orange helmets with the 63-38 drubbing that Tennessee took at the hands of South Carolina on Nov. 19, 2022.
If it were up to me, I’d dump the orange helmets into the Tennessee River alongside those goal posts that were ripped down after the Alabama loss. And good riddance.