There have been a lot more ups than downs during our seniors’ tenure. They have been nationally ranked two years in a row – and won nine games two years in a row. Coming into the season they had won 16 of their last 20 games – tied for the second best mark in the entire SEC during that time span.
It seems like a long time ago now.
There is no silver lining for the massacre that occurred last Saturday night. One of the hallmarks of this senior class, however, is responding to adversity. After a low-point as miserable as the Starkville shakedown, there are two ways the team can go: it can roll over, or play next week like their hair is on fire. The latter is what occurred last year after both games in which we allowed over fifty points. In the game after the 2013 Missouri debacle, we beat Georgia. After A&M smoked us last season, we whipped Florida on the road. The seniors need to circle the wagons and lay down the law to the underclassmen.
There is going to be a lot of embarrassing film to watch this week – far too many matador efforts all night long on defense in Starkville. After hearing the announcers call them “hapless” and “uncompetitive,” there should be considerable fire in the team’s belly. This also goes for the coaching staff who were blistered on national tv for delivering that punchless, uninspired and mailed-in performance coming off a bye.
We catch UT at an interesting time. The Vols must win to be bowl-eligible. That is a lot of pressure for a team that has only won once on the road. That win came in the closing minutes against South Carolina, as the Gamecocks blew a signed, sealed and delivered 14 point lead with soft zones and no rush. The Vols, between suspensions and injuries, will be somewhat short-handed for this game. A.J. Johnson, their best defender, is out. The Vols’ best receiver Marquez North is out. The o-line remains banged up and young. Of course, Vegas has installed the Vols as 14 ½ point favorites and it is hard to blame them.
This game will really come down to coaching. Our staff’s stubbornness will be sorely tested – because we do not like to blitz and we do like to sit back in zones. This recipe is exactly how Tennessee hung 45 points on South Carolina. Easy pitches and catches early lead to confident opponents – something our staff seems to cultivate. In SEC games, we have been outscored 61-21 in the first quarter – 61-7 excluding the South Carolina aberration. Meanwhile, Mizzou shut down UT’s offense and sacked Vol qb Josh Dobbs six times last week by bringing heat. Dobbs is good and elusive – but UT’s offense line is shuffled and vulnerable. If we are ever going to show some creativity, aggression, and take a chance or two – this is the week to do it.
On offense, the misery simply continues. Last week was our fifth game with one or fewer offensive touchdowns. It is time to put George Costanza in the booth and let him convince our offensive brain trust to “do the opposite” of their every impulse. Run wide. Roll out the quarterback. Throw an option pass. Run some wildcat. Take the Vols to shallow water. Johnny McCrary is capable of making this offense work if we would give him some rope. If not now, when?
This season began with high hopes. It would be nice if we could channel our disappointment and catch our final opponent sleeping on us. Pick: UT 32, Vanderbilt 26.
In Gainesville, the Will Muschamp era draws to a close. The ACC decided that Jameis Winston’s openly shoving an official last week did not merit a suspension – or any other discipline. The League Office reported that in light of the assault, theft, profanity and other wrongdoing allegations already on his sheet, this incident was “small potatoes.” The obvious shove apparently only registered a three on the “Winston Scale” which measures how egregious the alleged misconduct is versus how badly the league wants FSU to win a particular game. FSU and the ACC clearly do not want the Seminoles to lose to SEC thorn, Florida. While there is talk of the Gators winning one last game for Gipper Muschamp, Florida has suffered some serious injuries on defense lately. The Gators, surprisingly, are not that great at home either: 1-3 in conference play. Pick: FSU 28, Florida 17.
Georgia Tech has waited years to run the triple option with a qb who can actually throw. The 9-2 Yellowjackets look legitimate – although they really have not played a very challenging schedule. Georgia, at home, is favored by a whopping 13 points. When in doubt, pick the SEC team – but the East is fairly down this year and Georgia has trouble stopping the run. It was good scheduling to scrimmage Charleston Southern’s multi-option offense last week. Pick: Georgia 44, Tech 38.
Clemson is favored by 4 ½ over South Carolina. Is it just me or has Clemson been overrated for the last decade? The Tigers would relish beating Steve Spurrier’s squad – the Gamecocks are on a 5-game win streak over Clemson and none of them have been by single digits. If Dabo is ever going to beat the Head Ball Coach again, this is the year. The Gamecocks have slipped significantly on defense – but Spurrier is still inside Clemson’s head. Clemson may get back qb Deshaun Watson this week. Pick: South Carolina 23, Clemson 20.
Kentucky needs one more win to become bowl-eligible. After giving up 63 points to Georgia, the Wildcats rolled over for 50 versus the Vols. They had a bye to think about that and prepare for Louisville. The Cardinals could let down after the big win against Notre Dame – but they are significantly better than Kentucky. Strange things happen in rivalry games. Pick: Louisville 35, UK 17.
Big games abound in conference, too. LSU travels to A&M to close out the season. LSU got dismantled by Arkansas in their last outing – but that loss looks better after the Razorbacks’ massacre of Ole Miss. A&M has firepower, but has seemed soft against physical teams – like 59-0 soft against Bama. Vegas thinks LSU’s power running game makes them a 2 ½ point favorite. Pick: LSU 21, A&M 20.
Arkansas has been close all year – then after finally winning a conference game and shutting out LSU, the Razorbacks followed up by shutting out Ole Miss. Arkansas’ running game is outstanding. Missouri’s d-line is outstanding. This will be a fascinating game which will decide the East crown. Missouri must win to hold off Georgia. Missouri has been winning with solid defense and balanced offense – it just seems like smoke and mirrors because the Tigers are not throwing nearly as well as preseason hype suggested. What they are doing is working. Arkansas’ recent wins have come at home – but they have really peaked the last two weeks. Pick: Arkansas 27, Mizzou 26.
The Egg Bowl looked like a “Game of the Decade” a few weeks ago. But after Arkansas put a fork in Ole Miss last week-end, it is now a game for pride. Ole Miss has not looked right since losing Laquon Treadwell and Bo Wallace got pretty banged up last week-end. For all the early season hype, a loss lands Ole Miss back at .500 in conference. The home crowd and the fierce rivalry will help keep it close – but MSU is for real. The Bulldogs know that a lackluster performance gives Ohio State, Baylor and TCU room to maneuver in the Playoff Ratings. Pick: MSU 34, Ole Miss 20.
Much like the Egg Bowl, the Iron Bowl looked much more glitzy a month ago – before Auburn stubbed its toe against A&M and fell flat at Georgia. In this rivalry, anything can happen as we saw last year. The important trend is: Alabama is getting better while Auburn is slipping. In that last minute drive in Baton Rouge, Bama’s offense finally found itself. Pick: Bama 31, Auburn 14.
Remember to thank a senior. And maybe a few juniors, too. It would be fitting if the underclassmen could rally and send this senior class out on a winning note – that is what they deserve.