KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — This weekend presented the type of scenery that every Tennessee fan wants out of a football weekend in Knoxville: crisp weather, vibrant fall foliage, a tough test against No. 1 Georgia, and a national spotlight to absorb the optimism that coursed through the streets leading into this prime time, CBS matchup.
“This is the first time Georgia’s going to see an offense that moves as fast as we do,” said Tennessee wide receiver JaVonta Payton. “It’s about us going out and doing what we do best. We most definitely think we can go out there and turn some eyes this week.”
Sure enough, by Saturday, those eyes were indeed glued to Rocky Top — and not just during the game.
From Tennessee alums and ESPN personalities Ryan McGee and Paul Finebaum leading the SEC Network coverage in front of Ayres Hall; to Peyton Manning telling the Dawgs they better “look out;” to beloved Lady Vol legend and WNBA champion Candace Parker leading the Homecoming float parade through campus; and to Manning, Parker and softball legend Monica Abbott and football/baseball alum Todd Helton making appearances during timeouts on the field — the stars and hype were on full display all weekend.
The attendance went stride-for-stride, as orange tailgate tents flapped from Neyland Drive to Circle Park before the Vols traversed a sea of orange en route to Neyland Stadium — a testament to the atmosphere that Josh Heupel has reignited in Knoxville.
Finally, once a crowd of 100,074 — not sold-out, but not far off, either — packed into Tennessee’s college football coliseum, the only question left was this: could the Vols pass their toughest test this season?
Going into the second quarter, the question remained in limbo as the Vols took a 10-7 lead before the Bulldogs tied the score.
Then, within a matter of moments, Hendon Hooker and Stetson Bennett combined to form an emphatic answer: NO.
Hooker fired his third interception of the season, Georgia marched 40 yards in five plays, and Bennett — known to Bulldog fans as “The Mailman” — delivered the go-ahead touchdown on a scamper that proved Tennessee coaches right when they said Bennett could move with his feet.
UGA scored again before the half, as James Cook — who burned the Vols in the first quarter with a game-tying, 39-yard score — hauled in a pass from Bennett to put the Dawgs up 24-10.
Georgia (10-0, 8-0 SEC) never looked back, as Cook and Bennett outran Tennessee (5-5, 3-4 SEC) in a 41-17 win.
Cool was masterful, scoring three total touchdowns, with one in each of the first two quarters and another on a 5-yard grab with 13 minutes left to play.
Bennett was just as good, as he completed 17 of 29 passes for 213 yards and a score. He also took eight touches for 40 yards, converted several third-down plays — a continually tough task for this UT defense — and notched the score.
Conversely, Hooker sailed several throws and appeared out of sync all night. He finished 24 for 37 for 244 yards and the score, and he was sacked five times.
Heupel mentioned that pass rush as one reason for Hooker’s discomfort on his interception, and it also explained why the Vols couldn’t hit big plays after entering the game with a nation-best five plays of 70 yards or more.
“Tonight wasn’t our best football,” Heupel said. “I don’t want to take anything away from Georgia. Just our controllables we can do a bit better.”
Fueled by their offensive success and the Vols’ sudden inability to connect on game-changing plays, the Bulldogs controlled the final 30 minutes and put up 17 second-half points. Meanwhile, Tennessee’s second half mustered a garbage-time touchdown on a pass from Joe Milton to Tillman, who overcame UT’s struggles to notch a career-best 10 catches for 200 yards and the score.
Granted, the Vols were without leading rusher Tiyon Evans and Payton, who left the game with an upper body injury in the first half.
Moreover, UT did hang the most points and yards that Georgia has allowed this season in a game few predicted Tennessee to win.
But after what this team has shown so far this season, one would think they could have mustered more in the second half.
“A lot disappointed,” Tillman said. “Just feel like we could have did better. Sure we did more than people expected, but we expected that. We have our moments, but we have to be better.”
Now, Heupel’s group is still searching for a sixth win that would clinch bowl eligibility.
The good news, for the next two weeks, is that neither South Alabama nor Vanderbilt should put up half, or maybe even a quarter, of what Georgia did on Saturday.
And the Vols should have no problem being “better” with either one, meaning that Heupel would finish his first season at 7-5 — a remarkable turnaround considering where this program was when he took over in January.
“No doubts in our guys and who they are,” Heupel said. “Didn’t do the things we needed to to make it a game down the stretch. But it’s a group I’ll go compete with every Saturday.”
“Got to continue to compete and grow. Our kids aren’t scared of walking out in front of anybody. We’ll end up on the right side of some of these.”
With what Heupel has built, he’s right — this team will compete toe-to-toe with the nation’s best in no time. They already have at points this season.
Still, as far as these Vols have come, and as much resilience as they have shown, fans are right to leave underwhelmed after a performance that generated far less optimism than the eye-turning excitement generated this week.
Cover photo via Jake Nichols