Tennessee lost the College Football Playoff on Saturday night. The Vols dropped from contention in the most stunning fashion – a blowout loss to a mediocre opponent.
Gone, too, is Hendon Hooker’s chance to win the Heisman Trophy. November performances are magnified in the race for college football’s top award, and for the second time this month, the Vols’ star quarterback got outplayed by his opposing counterpart in a loss. Worse, he exited in the fourth quarter after his left knee buckled during a run, a non-contact injury that resulted in a torn ACL in his final play with the Vols. What a cruel, unfair ending for a player who made Tennessee fun again.
Coach Josh Heupel must do some soul searching and staff evaluating after this debacle, because although Hooker wasn’t at a Heisman level, he shouldn’t shoulder the burden for this loss.
The Vols surrendered 606 yards in a 63-38 loss at South Carolina, with everything on the line.
South Carolina (7-4, 4-4 SEC) scored more points than it amassed in its three previous games combined.
Gamecocks quarterback Spencer Rattler threw eight touchdown passes in the season’s first 10 games. They passed for six scores against the Vols (9-2, 5-2) and their porous secondary.
The back end of UT’s defense has been a hindrance since the loss in the Music City Bowl, to cap last season. The Vols’ pass defense ranks last in the SEC for the second consecutive year.
UT’s offense and pass rush helped mask the secondary for most of the season, but they couldn’t save the Vols from getting blown apart at Williams-Brice Stadium.
ADAMS:Tennessee football might bounce back quickly from a loss. But fans won’t
ESTES:Harsh lesson from Tennessee football’s South Carolina collapse: Title teams play defense
TENNESSEE FOOTBALL MAILBAG:Unpacking Tennessee football loss, Hendon Hooker’s injury, Tim Banks’ future with Vols
Offense is Heupel’s forte, so he needs top Minds working on his defense. They don’t have enough.
South Carolina scored touchdowns on nine of 11 possessions.
Defensive Coordinator Tim Banks’ Wikipedia page Briefly and inaccurately (or at least prematurely) listed his employment status as “jobless” Saturday night – probably the handiwork of a disgruntled Vols fan. The prankster’s hijinks might prove prescient.
If not Banks, then defensive backs Coach Willie Martinez should be on thin ice. Tennessee already fired Martinez once, when Butch Jones was coach. The sequel isn’t an improvement.
South Carolina’s 63 points marked Tennessee’s most surrendered since … wait for it … 1893, when Duke’s 70 points in a Rout of UT coincided with Grover Cleveland’s second presidency.
Something – or someone – must change.
Heupel’s staff inherited a deficient group of defensive backs from the previous regime. However, this staff failed to address the Talent and depth inadequacies in the secondary through recruiting, the transfer Portal or player development.
Tennessee’s secondary is in such dire shape that safety Jaylen McCollough remains in the starting lineup despite facing a felony aggravated assault charge after an October arrest for punching a lost drunk man. When the police talked to the man, he had a bloody mouth and missing teeth.
McCollough’s attorney is mounting a vigorous defense in a case bound for grand jury review. Nothing vigorous about Tennessee’s defense against the Gamecocks.
The Vols relentlessly pressured quarterbacks in impressive defensive performances against LSU and Kentucky, but they sacked Rattler just once, and he completed 30 of 37 passes.
In a Pivotal moment on the final play of the third quarter, Rattler moved the chains on third-and-20. The Vols dropped seven defenders into coverage, four of whom drifted 10 yards deeper than the first-down markers. Antwane Wells Jr. settled into a gaping hole in front of the four deep Defenders for an easy 25-yard gain.
Tennessee middle linebacker Jeremy Banks did not travel to South Carolina for undisclosed reasons. Heupel refused to explain Banks’ absence. Unless Banks could be omnipresent, though, hard to see how him playing would have altered this outcome.
Hooker lacked his usual flair and accuracy on a night the Vols needed him to dazzle, and Tennessee’s streak without a Heisman Winner will endure. Two weeks ago, Stetson Bennett IV outplayed Hooker in UT’s loss to Georgia.
Ohio State’s CJ Stroud and Southern Cal’s Caleb Williams are now the Heisman favorites. Hooker deserved a better ending than limping off the field in a defeat.
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If the Vols beat Vanderbilt (5-6, 2-5), they’ll be a strong candidate for a New Year’s Six bowl.
Considering where this program was 22 months ago, that’s quite an accomplishment. Considering where this program was a week ago, that’s a consolation prize.
Playoff path clarifies for LSU football
Well. 6 LSU (9-2, 6-1) should surpass No. 5 Tennessee in the CFP rankings after blasting UAB 41-10.
If LSU wins out and beats No. 1 Georgia in the SEC Championship, the Tigers should be a playoff qualifier. This had seemed obvious to me for a couple of weeks, but some pundits were in denial. With Tennessee out of the way, no one should be in denial now.
LSU’s path to the playoff is narrow – Georgia (11-0, 8-0) is a fierce Bully – but the Tigers at least have the opportunity to play their way in, while others, like ACC frontrunner Clemson, will need help.
Three and out
1. Quarterback KJ Jefferson’s return from injury sparked Arkansas (6-5, 3-4) to Bowl Eligibility in a 42-27 Destruction of Ole Miss. Rocket Sanders (232 yards rushing) was the headline performer, but Jefferson provided balance. Arkansas lost to Mississippi State and LSU while Jefferson was out with injuries. They played hurt in a loss to Liberty. When he’s healthy, Arkansas is among the SEC’s top teams.
2. The Rebels (8-3, 4-3) looked frozen and aloof amid the Arkansas tundra. Ole Miss Coach Lane Kiffin believes the performance should hurt his candidacy for Auburn’s coaching job. “Maybe if (Auburn) watched the first half, I wouldn’t be (candidate) No. 1 anymore,” Kiffin said, while otherwise declining to discuss his interest in the job.
Playing so poorly that a Rival school no longer wants to Steal your Coach would be quite the chess move.
3. Kentucky (6-5, 3-5), loser of five of its past seven games, has inked a contract extension for Coach Mark Stoops. The deal runs through the 2030 season and will increase his salary to $9 million in February. UK joins Missouri in awarding extensions and raises to their Coach amid disappointing seasons. Coach Jimbo Fisher must be licking his chops at Texas A&M (4-7, 1-6).
The “Topp Rope,” is his twice-weekly SEC football column Publishing throughout the USA TODAY Network. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it. Also, check out his podcast, SEC Football Unfilteredor access exclusive columns via the SEC Unfiltered newsletter.