ATLANTA — At this point, no motivational tactic employed by Tennessee coach Butch Jones and his staff will avoid becoming a meme. The Volunteers had a trash can on their sideline Monday to collect balls taken away from Georgia Tech.
Other teams use props to celebrate turnover souvenir collection. Alabama has a wrestling championship belt that goes to the defender who took the ball away. SMU, Austin Peay and Texas A&M also use a trash can. The Aggies’ can reads “Y’all trash.” But only the Tennessee one—which was around last year and into which the player who forced the turnover dunks a foam ball—inspires instant ridicule, because this is what “Champions of Life” and “Five-Star Hearts” hath wrought. Nothing Jones does will be right until the Vols back up his cliches with more meaningful wins.
Monday’s 42–41 double-overtime miracle was an excellent start.
The Volunteers were dead. Georgia Tech physically and statistically dominated the first three quarters. Then Tennessee came back to get within a touchdown early in the fourth quarter. Then the Yellow Jackets began marching for one final, clock-killing drive. They would have killed it, too. They would have scored the three or the seven points that they needed to put away the Vols, and all those trash can jokes would have been positively hiiiiiii-larious.
Except as Georgia Tech back J.J. Green scampered in the open field for yet another first down, Tennessee safety Rashaan Gaulden knocked the ball loose. After a brief Benny Hill skit, Tennessee safety Micah Abernathy ended up with the ball. One for the trash can. Soon after, tailback John Kelly ran in his second touchdown of the night from 11 yards out to tie it. Then, when Georgia Tech had another chance to end the game with a 36-yard field goal as time expired, Tennessee walk-on defensive tackle Paul Bain—who sells shoes at Champs Sports and grinds horse feed on a farm to pay tuition—tipped Shawn Davis’s worm-burner of a kick.
The teams traded touchdowns for two overtimes before Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson decided the game needed to end and went for a two-point conversion at the end of the second overtime. The Yellow Jackets had the perfect play—a counter option that would attack an overloaded right side. They only needed to block the defensive end playing on the outside eye of right tackle Will Bryan and the linebacker manning the gap between Bryan and right guard Shamire Devine. But Bryan tried to reach block the end (Darrell Taylor) when he should have hit the linebacker and let pulling left guard Parker Braun clear out Taylor. Taylor slipped the block and hit Georgia Tech quarterback TaQuon Marshall, who tried to pitch the ball to b-back KirVonte Benson. Had the ball been pitched backward, Benson could have picked it up and run in for a touchdown. But the ball went slightly forward. Incomplete pass. Game over. Afterward, Johnson said he didn’t care that officials didn’t review the play to confirm the pitch was a forward pass. “That play was so… That should have been a walk-in,” Johnson said. “We screwed up the play, so we didn’t deserve to win.”
The Vols, who beat Florida and Georgia last year and somehow managed to not win the SEC East (because they lost to South Carolina) and not make the Sugar Bowl (because they lost to Vanderbilt), were a few degrees on that pitch away from being a joke again. Now? They’re 1–0. Make fun all you please, but the final score is all that matters.
“We have a lot of grit,” Tennessee’s Jones said. “The downside of that is it’s probably put 20 years on me.”
Allowing 655 yards on 96 plays will take years off a coach’s life, but Tennessee survived this time. The Vols survived thanks to 23 tackles from linebacker Daniel Bituli. “When we were getting taped today,” Gaulden said, “[Bituli] said ‘I’m going to show the world who I am today.’” The Vols survived thanks to Bain, who made a the biggest play of his career a few miles from his hometown of Marietta, Ga. The Vols survived because Marquez Callaway slipped a tackle and beat the rest of the Georgia Tech defense down the sideline on a 50-yard catch-and-run touchdown early in the fourth quarter. The Vols survived because of Kelly (19 carries, 128 yards, four touchdowns), who runs the way Liam Neeson tracks down kidnapped people.
Of course Jones knows the Vols won’t keep winning if they play every game the way they did Monday. “We have to get a lot better in a hurry,” he said. And they do. Tennessee must face Florida and Georgia before September ends, and despite what happened last year, it’s quite likely the results of those games will affect the SEC East race.
Jones was asked Monday night why his team seems to court chaos. “It’s all in how you tell the narrative,” he said. “Maybe this program has great character and grit.”
It is all about narrative. That’s why Tennessee’s trash can gets made fun of while Texas A&M—which blew a 34-point lead to UCLA on Sunday—can use its receptacle laughter-free. But Jones himself set that narrative last November the moment “Champions of Life” left his lips. It won’t change until the Vols are champions of something else. That will take a lot more wins, but Monday’s miracle showed that this Tennessee team isn’t about to quit and let its season get tossed in the trash.