Tennessee football coach Butch Jones went from goat to hero in a matter of hours last Saturday.
The Vols trailed Florida 21-0 in the first half – and 21-3 at halftime – and appeared headed to their 12th consecutive loss to the Gators.
Some fans were booing when the Vols headed to the locker room at halftime. Some fans were leaving Neyland Stadium. They missed one of the most memorable comebacks, perhaps the best half of football Tennessee has ever played.
The Vols’ 38-28 victory over Florida didn’t just snap an 11-game losing streak against a despised rival. It gave UT fans hope this year’s team will live up to its billing as the favorite in the SEC East Division with a chance to play in the SEC Championship Game for the first time since 2007.
Reality check: Tennessee opened as a 10-point favorite to beat Florida, and the line was about a touchdown by kickoff. This was a game UT and Jones had to win. If the Vols lost to Florida when they were favored for a third consecutive year, Orange Nation would have been in an upheaval.
Instead, No. 11-ranked UT (4-0, 1-0 SEC) has all goals intact for its first true road trip of the season vs. No. 25/20 Georgia (3-1, 1-1) in Athens on Saturday. Kickoff is 3:30 ET on CBS.
The Vols have won 10 consecutive games dating back to last year, are 4-0 for the first time since 2003, and are 1-0 in the SEC for the first time since 2004 – the last year they beat Florida before Saturday.
Tennessee fans far and wide were glowing all week from the Florida game – even with the toughest stretch of games looming against Georgia, at Texas A&M on Oct. 8, and vs. Alabama at Neyland Stadium on Oct. 15.
“In terms of the joy and all that, again, I bleed with our fan base,” Jones said Monday at his weekly press conference.
“I know our fan base is very hungry. I know what they want and I don’t want to let them down. Our coaches don’t want to let them down and our players don’t want to let them down. I work for them. I work for our players. Everything is about our players, but again, it’s a week-to-week season.
“I keep that in perspective. That’s what drives me, and I know there were a lot of people that didn’t want me here at halftime (of the Florida game). I get that. That’s part of the job.
“Love is conditional, and at the end of the game, everything flips, and that’s why I think you have to keep things in perspective and you have to keep grinding each and every day.”
It’s why the Vols kept grinding against Florida.
Jones said he faced a balancing act when he faced his team at halftime against the Gators.
“I obviously circled them up and spoke to them,” Jones said. “It [was] what did that team need at that particular time? I wasn’t going to go in there and berate them and belittle them and all that because they didn’t need that at that time. “We did not play our best football.
“They heard the boos entering the (halftime). You’re dealing with 17- to 21-year-old kids, and what they needed to know is we talk about having each other’s back, we have each other’s back in our football program. It wasn’t up to our standard,’’ he added.
“It was not the way we’re going to play football here. It came down to execution. It wasn’t an effort thing. We need to catch the football. That was the big thing. We had more drops (dropped passes) in that game than we’ve had in 10 games, so it came down to us. It was a matter of us executing and also defensively tackling and not giving up the big play.
“I could see the look in their eyes. They needed to know I believed in them. Now did I challenge them? Absolutely, I challenged them because I thought they needed it, but really it was the players understanding and them going out and doing their job and doing it well.”
While Tennessee was reveling this week, Georgia was digesting last Saturday’s 45-14 loss at Ole Miss. The Bulldogs have been shaky since a 33-24 victory over North Carolina in the season opener in Atlanta.
They trailed Nichols 14-13 in the third quarter of a 26-24 victory in Athens on Sept. 10. They needed a touchdown pass on fourth down with 1:29 left to beat Missouri 28-27 on Sept. 17 in Columbia.
Then came last week. Georgia trailed 31-0 at the half and 45-0 in the third quarter.
Is that good or bad for the Vols? Will the Bulldogs still be reeling, or will they be vengeful?
“We know Georgia’s a great football team,” Cortez McDowell, UT junior linebacker said Monday. “Every team that we play in this conference is a great football team. We know that they’ve been on the road the last two weeks. They’re going to be at home.
“The atmosphere of the game is going to be wild, but we just have to control what we can control, and that’s how we’ll prepare this week and how we’ll come out Saturday at 3:30 and play.”
Jones expects first-year Georgia coach Kirby Smart to have the Bulldogs itching to play the Vols.
Smart is in his first season as a head coach after spending the previous nine years at Alabama, where he was defensive coordinator and assistant head coach to Nick Saban.
“We’re going to get their best,” Jones said. “They’re a really, really, good football team. They’re physical. They have playmakers. … They have our respect, and it’s going to be a tough, tough football game, but it also gets down to the maturity of your football team.”
Tennessee is the only team in the SEC East without a loss, and by beating Georgia would have the tiebreaker against Florida and the Bulldogs – its biggest contenders for the division title.
3 matchups to watch
Dobbs vs. ’Dogs secondary
Tennessee quarterback Josh Dobbs played one of the best 30 minutes of football for a UT quarterback against Florida. Can he come close to it at Georgia?
Sure. Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly threw for 284 yards and two touchdowns on 18-of-24 passing against the Bulldogs last Saturday with no interceptions. He was sacked once and rushed for 53 yards on four carries, scoring on a 41-yard run.
Dobbs will be the third consecutive dual-threat quarterback the Bulldogs have faced. Missouri’s Drew Lock threw for 376 yards and three touchdowns and gained 9 yards on two rush attempts.
Once UT’s offensive line tightened up in the second half against Florida – and the Vols receivers stopped the drops – Dobbs lit up the Gators. In the first half, Dobbs was 7 of 20 for 84 yards and an interception in the Gators’ end zone, but UT’s receivers/tight ends had five dropped passes (including one by Jason Croom that would have been a touchdown).
In the second half, Dobbs completed 9 of 12 passes for 235 yards with four touchdowns and an interception. His 20-yard pass to tight end Ethan Wolf in the end zone and the 67-yarder down the right sideline to Jauan Jennings for a touchdown and 24-21 lead were right on target.
Georgia is giving up 243.2 passing yards per game and has allowed eight TD passes. Tennessee has averaged 210.5 passing yards in four games. Florida’s defense entered last Saturday’s game allowing 127 yards per game – the fewest in the nation last week – and gave up 498 against the Vols.
Chaney vs. Shoop
Tennessee fans remember Georgia offensive coordinator Jim Chaney, who was the Vols’ OC for one year under Lane Kiffin (2009) and three years under Derek Dooley (2010-12).
When Dooley was fired after the 2012 season, Chaney landed as offensive coordinator at Arkansas the next two years, was at Pitt in 2015, and was hired by Smart for this year.
Jones made a huge hire when he got defensive coordinator Bob Shoop from Penn State, where he spent two seasons. The former Vanderbilt defensive coordinator (2011-13) was hired by Tennessee to win big games like Florida, and he did so last Saturday with a banged-up defense.
Tennessee was without three of its four best defensive players against Florida – linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr., cornerback Cam Sutton, and linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin (who played very little) – yet the defense stymied the Gators in the second half.
After putting up 300 yards, 12 first downs and 21 points in the first half, Florida managed only 102 yards, five first downs, and seven points after halftime.
Look for Chaney to spread the field and test the Vols with the passing of freshman quarterback Jacob Eason.
In turn, look for Shoop’s defensive front to put pressure on Eason, whose pass protection has been iffy. He’s been sacked nine times this year – seven times in the last two games.
Barnett & Co. vs Georgia line
Junior defensive end Derek Barnett had two sacks, three tackles for loss and a pass break-up against Florida – his second consecutive big game.
Barnett, of Nashville’s Brentwood Academy Academy, is fifth on UT’s career sacks list with 22, that’s 10 behind career leader Reggie White (1980-83).
With Georgia’s protection issues the past couple of games, Barnett and left end Corey Vereen should get some shots on Eason.
5 things to watch
Eason in action
Eason was a highly touted quarterback recruit out of Lake Stevens, (Washington) High School and won the starting job in the fall over 2015 starter Greyson Lambert and Brice Ramsey.
His stats line against Ole Miss resembled that of a true freshman: 16 of 36 completions (44.4 percent) for 137 yards and an interception that was returned 52 yards for a touchdown and 14-0 lead. And Eason lost a fumble.
To his credit, Eason was the victim of at least six dropped passes – including a perfectly thrown drop to Jayson Stanley that should have been a 31-yard touchdown – and was under far more pressure than the first two games.
Don’t forget, Eason threw the game-winning touchdown pass against Missouri on a fourth-and-10 situation with 1:29 to play. He was 29 of 55 for 308 yards and three touchdowns in that game.
In four games, Eason has completed 52 percent of his passes for 780 yards (195 yards per game) with five touchdowns and three interceptions.
Tennessee beat Florida with backup linebackers last week, and the reserves may be needed again in Athens.
Junior Colton Jumper, a former walk-on from Chattanooga Baylor, got the start in place of Kirkland Jr. and finished with the team-high eight tackles and a pass break-up.
Although he’s not the physical talent of Kirkland Jr., Jumper knows the defense and how to get teammates in position.
Reeves-Maybin started against Florida, but it was apparent early he wouldn’t be effective. He was off the field most of the first half, started the second half, soon went to the bench, and finished with two tackles.
Jones said Monday Reeves-Maybin is expected to play against Georgia, but Kirkland Jr. is questionable to doubtful.
With Reeves-Maybin out most of the Florida game, McDowell and third-year sophomores Dillon Bates and Gavin Bryant saw increased roles.
Junior running back Nick Chubb can’t catch a break on Tennessee week.
Last year, Chubb suffered a season-ending knee injury on the first play of the Vols’ 38-31 victory, and he was questionable for Saturday’s game after spraining his ankle against Ole Miss. The Macon Telegraph reported Chubb was wearing a walking boot early in the week.
Chubb rushed for 57 yards on 12 carries (4.8-yard average) before getting hurt last Saturday and leads the Bulldogs in rushing with 422 yards and averages 5.1 yards per carry with three touchdowns.
If he’s out, the Bulldogs’ rushing game turns to junior Sony Michel and freshman Brian Herrien. Michel took over the rushing load when Chubb was injured last year and ended up with 1,161 yards and eight touchdowns and was the SEC’s third-leading rusher.
Michel suffered a fractured left forearm in an ATV accident in early summer and his return has been a process.
Herrien is Georgia’s second leading rusher with 184 yards (three touchdowns) in three games and ran for 78 yards on 11 carries (7.1-yard average) against Ole Miss and two TDs.
Sophomore right tackle Chance Hall returned to the Vols’ offensive line against Florida and seemed to bolster the unit.
It was Hall’s first appearance this season after suffering a knee injury in August and having arthroscopic surgery.
Tennessee’s starting line against Florida consisted of Brett Kendrick at right tackle, Jashon Robertson at left guard, Wiesman at center, Jack Jones at right guard, Hall at right tackle, and Wolf at tight end.
The Vols’ line became the focal point of the offense’s shortcomings in the first three games but was a big factor in the rally against Florida.
UT had only two negative-yardage plays vs. Florida.
Tennessee and Georgia share one common theme this year: both faced big deficits.
Georgia has trailed in all four of its game this year, including three by at least 10 points.
Aside from Ole Miss, Missouri led Georgia 10-0 in the first half. Although the Bulldogs led North Carolina 14-10 at halftime of the season opener, they trailed 24-14 in the third quarter before rallying for a 33-24 win.
Tennessee trailed Appalachian State 7-0 in the first quarter of the season opener, 13-3 in the second quarter, and 13-6 in the fourth quarter before tying it with 2:04 to play and winning 20-13 in overtime.
In the second game, Virginia Tech led 14-0 before the Vols scored the next 31 points on their way to a 45-24 victory.
Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.