Tennessee football might bounce back quickly from loss. But fans won't | Adams

John Adams
Knoxville News Sentinel

Tennessee football might bounce quickly from Saturday's 63-38 loss to South Carolina at Williams-Brice Stadium. The Vols might beat Vanderbilt next Saturday as badly as they were expected to beat the Gamecocks.

But the fans won't be as resilient. Why? Because they have been here before.

They were in Atlanta in 2001 when the Vols were on the verge of playing for a national championship. Tennessee had just beaten Florida a week earlier for the SEC East championship and was favored to defeat LSU in the SEC championship game.

Its chances for a victory seemingly improved when LSU lost its starting quarterback and running back to injury in the first half. But LSU rallied in the second half behind backup quarterback Matt Mauck to upset the Vols.

Fans still remember that as an opportunity lost. They likely will remember the South Carolina loss even longer.

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For the first time since 2001, Tennessee had become a major player on the national stage. The No. 5 Vols (9-2, 5-2 SEC) had a chance at making the College Football Playoff and competing for the national championship.

They just had to beat three-touchdown underdog South Carolina (7-4, 4-4), which was coming off one of its worst performances of the season in a 38-6 loss to Florida.

What went wrong? Just about everything.

Outcomes like this one always raise questions. For example, fans will wonder why starting linebacker Jeremy Banks didn't play - didn't even make the trip, in fact.

UT coach Josh Heupel's explanation for Banks' absence will only raise more questions.

“Just wasn’t available for this one," Heupel said. "Anticipate, and hopeful, for next week.”

That's not to imply the Vols lost because of Banks' absence, even if it might have been a distraction. The outcome was as much about South Carolina as it was Tennessee.

I can't remember an SEC team playing a game that was less indicative of its season than South Carolina did. Its offense often hasn't looked capable of scoring 63 points in two conference games. Yet it scored at will against Tennessee, mainly because Oklahoma transfer quarterback Spencer Rattler played the game of his life.

Second-year South Carolina coach Shane Beamer also deserves plenty of credit for his team's one-game turnaround. The Gamecocks weren't just the best team on the field. They were the most inspired.

Talk about a role reversal. South Carolina played as though they were in the running for a national championship. The Vols played as though they had lost to Florida by 32 points a week earlier.

But this wasn't only about who was "up" and who wasn't.

The best quarterbacks on UT's schedule have exploited Tennessee's dismal secondary play. The Vols had enough offense to overcome Florida and Alabama but couldn't take back what the defense was giving up against the Gamecocks.

The defeat won't negate all the Vols have accomplished in Heupel's second season. They have exceeded preseason expectations. And the loss dim Tennessee's hopes for the future.

Heupel is one of the best offensive coaches in the country. The Vols will acquire more talent through recruiting and the transfer portal. They also have an aggressive sports collective that will enable them to be competitive in NIL deals.

But that won't make the loss to South Carolina any easier to accept.

Even though the Vols were beaten convincingly by No. 1 Georgia two weeks ago, they still had a great shot at the playoffs. All they had to do was win as a heavy favorite against Missouri, South Carolina and Vanderbilt, and pull for a couple of other ranked teams - with tougher remaining schedules - to slip up.

But the Vols slipped up. And an opportunity that doesn't come around that often slipped away, just as it did 21 years ago.

John Adams is a senior columnist. He may be reached at 865-342-6284 or Follow him at: