In approximately 50 years of following/covering Tennessee football, I don’t believe I’ve ever heard/read as much gloom and doom as I did heading into the 2014 season. You would’ve thought the Vols were a troop of girl scouts playing in the NFC West, instead of the SEC East.
My theory: Vol fans desperately want to believe Butch Jones is the guy to lead the program back to relevance. That’s why they gave him a pass in Year 1. And that’s why many are giving him another pass in Year 2 by suggesting a 5-7 record is the best this team can hope for. Some of the cynics cite the fact that both the offensive and defensive lines feature all-new starters. Some cite the fact this team will be more reliant on freshmen than probably any team in program history. Some cite the fact the Vols play in college football’s toughest conference.
All of these are valid points. The offensive line looked awful at times Sunday night. The young and undersized defensive line looked great in Game 1 but will be seriously challenged by downhill running attacks like Alabama’s and Georgia’s. The point about the SEC’s overall toughness is legitimate, too. But South Carolina looked awful in getting waxed by Texas A&M Thursday night. So did Vanderbilt in losing big to Temple the same evening. Florida is suspect coming off a 4-8 season, Missouri lost a bunch of good players from last year’s team and Kentucky is … well … Kentucky. Except for Georgia, the Vols appear capable of being competitive with anyone in their division.
As Sunday’s 38-7 score suggests, Tennessee dominated a Utah State team that was supposed to be a borderline top-25 squad and feature a Heisman-caliber quarterback. The Vols piled up twice as many first downs (24 to 11). They dominated on third down (converting 8 of 18 and holding Utah State to 3 of 14). And, for a team so young, the Vols beat major odds by playing 60 minutes without a turnover.
Bottom line: Tennessee is an alarmingly young football team but the youngsters managed to show up and grow up a lot Sunday night. There may be some lopsided losses on the schedule (Oklahoma, Bama, Georgia) but Sunday’s performance suggests these fuzzy-cheeked youngsters could be pretty good by November.
Worley the wunderkind
You could’ve gotten monster odds by betting that Vol quarterback Justin Worley would finish Sunday’s game with more rushing yards than Utah State counterpart Chuckie Keeton. Incredibly, it happened. While Tennessee’s defense was limiting the elusive Keeton to 23 gross yards and 12 net yards (including sacks) on eight carries, Worley was gaining 28 gross and 14 net (including sacks) on six rushes.
Worley says he’s more comfortable operating the Vols’ zone-read attack than he was a year ago.
“Much more,” he said. “We installed it last year, and it was my first time running it. I’d seen it and kind of knew the ins and outs of it but it’s something you have to work on in practice.
"There was a couple more times I could’ve pulled it tonight that I didn’t. It’s kind of a ‘feel of the game’ thing – feeling certain (defensive) players out and seeing how they were reacting to the run – but I feel more comfortable running the ball this year.”
He seems more comfortable passing the ball, too. A 56-percent passer for his career, he completed 27 of 38 attempts for 273 yards and three touchdowns Sunday night. Rather than accept praise, however, Worley deflected it. He credited Tennessee’s aerial success to his supporting cast, including freshman running back Jalen Hurd, who turned a short pass into a 15-yard touchdown.
“I came off the field after Jalen’s screen that he took for the touchdown and said, ‘We’ve got some playmakers, across the board,” Worley said. “We really do – from the tight end standpoint to receivers to running backs. You can’t really focus on one guy. There’s several guys that we can attack you with.”
And, unlike last year, Worley has “several guys” capable of making the kind of dynamic plays that shift a game’s momentum.
“It’s awesome,” the quarterback said. “To know that I don’t have to force a deep ball or something like that for us to make a splash play is huge.”
Remember the Sabbath Day
Maybe Tennessee should play all of its openers on Sunday night. The 38-7 drubbing of five-point underdog Utah State Sunday night at Neyland Stadium gave the Vols a 4-0-1 record in Sabbath openers.
The Vols beat Wisconsin 23-21 in the 1981 opener, nipped Iowa 23-22 in the 1987 opener and trounced UNLV 42-17 in the 2004 opener. The tie was a 31-31 stalemate in the 1990 Pigskin Classic against a Colorado team that would go on to win the national title. That Vol squad, by the way, went on to win the SEC championship.
Startling stat of the game
Twenty-one true freshmen played for Tennessee Sunday night. Counting redshirt freshmen, first-year junior-college transfers and walk-ons, 32 newcomers saw their first action as Vols. Bottom line: Forty-five percent of the UT players who took the field Sunday were making their collegiate debuts.