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Vols’ special season derailed in inexcusable debacle




COLUMBIA, South Carolina — With everything on this line, this.

Against a team like that, this.

Of all the ways it could end, this.

A Tennessee football season that felt too good to be true proved to be just that Saturday night, when the fifth-ranked Vols self-immolated in a shocking, 63-38 loss to South Carolina at Williams-Brice Stadium.

Gamecocks quarterback Spencer Rattler, who entered Saturday’s game with eight touchdown passes and nine interceptions this season, completed 31 of 38 passes for 438 yards and six touchdowns against a Tennessee defense that catapulted the Vols out of the chase for a national championship.

Tennessee senior safety Jaylen McCollough (Photo: Jeff Blake, USA TODAY Sports)

Tennessee tried pressure. It tried sitting back. It tried man. It tried zone. It tried everything but covering and tackling.

Any small sliver of doubt that existed disappeared in most cruel way imagine with 11 minutes, 38 seconds left, when the Vols trailed 49-31 and senior quarterback Hendon Hooker — arguably the best player in college football this season — went down with a non-contact knee injury and crumpled to the ground. The pain caused Hooker to lose the ball just before his knee hit the ground, and officials correctly ruled it a fumble after watching the replay, but none of that mattered in the moment. Not really.

Sports are the best and the worst, the most generous and the most cruel, the most fair and the most unfair. Tennessee losing that game was fair. Hooker potentially suffering a significant injury was unfair. The story of his college career deserves a better ending than that, and all we have is hope that this wasn’t the end.

The result of this game, though? Fair. Tennessee’s offense was erratic, but by definition that means some things went well. Scoring 38 points should have been enough to beat South Carolina twice. It would have been enough to beat the Gamecocks six times last week in Gainesville.

It’s difficult to fathom anything, even in hindsight, that will render that defensive performance excusable. That result against that offense is inexcusable. When Plan A didn’t work, Plan B should have worked. Failing that, a Plan C should have worked. Or D, E, F, whatever. Go down the entire alphabet. Find a Plan Z. Or maybe just cover and tackle.

Even when Tennessee’s defense worked, it didn’t work. South Carolina’s drive that started in the third quarter and ended in the fourth quarter was a collection of cardinal sins. A second-and-11 was converted. A third-and-20 — THIRD-AND-20 — was converted. A hands-to-the-face penalty wiped away a third-and-goal stop that would have kept the deficit at two scores with loads of time left. A pass interference penalty seconds later led to another first-and-goal, but that one at the 2-yard line.

Tennessee’s defense wasn’t going to leave the field on that drive until it gave South Carolina scored a game-sealing touchdown. It was the apex of losing football. It was the sort of thing this program was supposed to have in its rearview mirror.

Tennessee sophomore cornerback Christian Charles (Photo: Jeff Blake, USA TODAY Sports)

If Tennessee’s defense had agreed before the game to throw it as part of a devious financial scheme, the other party to that plan would be sweating profusely out of fear that the players didn’t make it look at least a bit better. Like, come on, guys, make it a little more believable. Mix in get a third-down stop or two.

Moments after that emasculating South Carolina score, Hooker went down while making the same cut he’s made probably thousands of times as a football player. Those two thing aren’t connected, of course, but they combined to take the worst situation imaginable and somehow worsen it.

Bad games happen. Really bad happen games happen, too. What happened to Tennessee in Columbia was miles beyond really bad. It was a complete collapse.

Tennessee didn’t just lose. It got obliterated. It was a 22-point favorite that lost by 25 points.

Now the question for second-year Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel is simple to ask but much more difficult and perhaps even painful to answer: How did this happen to my defense, and what needs to be done to fix it?

No option should be off the table, and no position above reproach or adjustment.

A complete dissection of that debacle is completely necessary. Knee-jerk reactions aren’t helpful, and Heupel — a level-headed man — knows that. But even when the emotions of this loss have cooled, a series of cold, calculated decisions must be made. Tennessee’s defense took a potentially special season and wrecked it. Pure and simple. It wrecked it. There’s no soft way to put that. That defensive performance couldn’t have been worse if the goal was to make it as bad as possible. South Carolina did not score a single offensive point last week against Florida. It scored 63 points against Tennessee. You could live a hundred lifetimes and not make sense of that.

It is unbelievably difficult to get in position to compete for a national championship, especially when your program has been lost in the desert for more than a decade and you play in the Southeastern Conference. Tennessee overcame a staggering list of obstacles and improbably positioned itself squarely in the hunt for a national title. It had an entire starting lineup of juniors and seniors, and it had a 24-year-old quarterback playing the position as well as it can be played at this level. So many things had to go right in order to put the Vols in the position they found themselves when Saturday’s game started, and almost all of them went right.

Tennessee football coach Josh Heupel (Photo: Jeff Blake, USA TODAY Sports)

Getting to that moment and then ruining it so spectacularly makes perspective difficult to find. There’s no way to know when Tennessee will again head into the penultimate week of the regular season with a national championship remaining a realistic possibility. Maybe it’ll be next year. Maybe it’ll be a few years. Maybe it’ll be a decade. Maybe even longer. There’s no way to know. All we know is that Tennessee had that goal within its grasp Saturday and now it does not, and that it has only itself to blame.

A 9-2 record heading into the regular-season finale at Vanderbilt is something every reasonable Tennessee fan on earth would have graciously accepted in August. Now it feels like a failure. That sounds so harsh, but it’s the truth. Getting housed by also-ran South Carolina was an abject failure on every level — but specifically the defensive level.

Was this game an embarrassing bump in the road for the Heupel era, or was it a decisive fork-in-the-road when things took a wrong and never fully recovered? We won’t know that answer for a while. But to even be sitting here openly — and fairly — pondering that question is a reflection of what this loss means.

National championship chase? Gone. Hooker’s Heisman Trophy campaign? Gone. Everything else? We’ll see.

This game might have been the closest it gets to losing an amount of goodwill that’s impossible to lose in one day.

We’ve seen Heupel get a proud program off its knees, patch its wounds and put something special on the field sooner than anyone had any right to expect. Now he’ll need to do it again, but this time he was in charge when it fell. He has to own that and act accordingly.

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