On the heels of a 35-32 loss at 12th-ranked Georgia Saturday in Sanford Stadium, Butch Jones and the 2014 Vols are left to ponder a gut-wrenching array of “ifs” and “buts” that could have turned a heart-breaking defeat into a monumental victory.
What “if” senior quarterback Justin Worley hadn’t missed three second-half possessions because of an injury to his right elbow? The Vols failed to muster a point on the three drives he sat out but scored touchdowns on two of the three possessions after he returned, sore elbow and all. Worley played by far his best game as a Vol, completing 23 of 35 passes for 264 yards and three touchdowns. It’s reasonable to expect he could have generated a game-changing TD or two on those three possessions he missed.
What “if” backup QB Nathan Peterman and Marlin Lane hadn’t botched a third-quarter handoff on a third-and-two play at Georgia’s 21-yard line? Down 21-17, the Vols appeared to be driving for a TD that would’ve given them a 24-21 lead. At the very least the Big Orange could’ve gotten a field goal that whittled the deficit to 21-20.
What “if” the officials ruled a Tennessee recovery when Vol nose tackle Owen Williams fell on a Nick Chubb fumble at the Georgia 40-yard line late in the third quarter? Replays clearly showed Williams cradling the ball to his stomach while on the ground, yet officials allowed the fight for the football to continue, eventually ruling that Chubb somehow recaptured it. The Dawgs punted the ball away two plays later, pinning Tennessee at its 8-yard line. Basically, the Vols lost 52 yards of field position – and tons of momentum – because Williams’ fumble recovery was not recognized.
What “if” the punt Georgia downed at Tennessee’s one-foot- line in the fourth quarter had rolled one more yard, resulting in a touchback? Two snaps later a bungled handoff between Worley and Jalen Hurd was recovered in the end zone, giving the Dawgs a cheap touchdown that bumped the lead to 35-25 and essentially sealed the outcome.
|Tennessee quarterback Nathan Peterman gets a pass off just before Georgia defensive tackle Toby Johnson makes the tackle.|
What “if” starting receivers Von Pearson and Josh Smith had been healthy enough to play for Tennessee? The Vols torched Georgia’s suspect secondary for 284 passing yards as it was. What would they have done if two of their top three receivers had been a part of the rotation?
Majors was right, of course. Pondering the “ifs” and “buts” after a tough loss is an exercise in futility and frustration. Still, the fact Tennessee is competitive enough to be a few breaks from upsetting ranked foes like Oklahoma and Georgia on the road represents obvious progress. That wasn’t the case when the Vols were losing 59-14 to Oregon, 45-10 to Alabama, 31-3 to Missouri and 55-23 to Auburn just one year ago.
Pardon the cliché but you’ve got to crawl before you walk and you’ve got to walk before you run. Tennessee crawled in 2013. The fact the 2014 Vols gave Oklahoma a mild scare in Norman and gave Georgia a serious scare in Athens suggests the program is back on its feet and walking.
The big question: When will the Big Orange be running again?
Based on how far this youthful Tennessee squad has come in its first four games, I think that day isn’t nearly as far off as it appeared in August. And I strongly suspect Oklahoma head man Bob Stoops and Georgia head man Mark Richt are inclined to agree with me.
Butch Jones post-game presser