A question I didn't expect to ask: Could Tennessee football lose to Vanderbilt? | Adams

John Adams
Knoxville News Sentinel

As Tennessee football was preparing for South Carolina last week, Vanderbilt also became a topic of conversation.

The discussion wasn't player-related. It was fan-related.

The question: Could Tennessee fans "checkerboard" Vanderbilt Stadium?

It was certainly a possibility because opposing fans – especially those from UT – have taken over the Commodores' home stadium many times. And it's still a possibility despite Saturday's bizarre turn of events.

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The more relevant question now: Could the Vols lose to Vanderbilt?

That was unthinkable before Tennessee lost to South Carolina 63-38 and the Commodores defeated Florida for back-to-back SEC wins after losing 26 consecutive conference games.

Suddenly, the Commodores have momentum. And the Vols have big questions.

The biggest: How will the Vols offense fare without quarterback Hendon Hooker, who incurred a season-ending ACL injury in the fourth quarter against South Carolina?

Hooker limping off the field at Williams-Brice Stadium was the saddest sight of Tennessee's season. But backup quarterback Joe Milton has starting experience and has played well as a backup this season.

Another question: What's the status of linebacker Jeremy Banks? He was left behind when the Vols headed for Columbia, South Carolina. Coach Josh Heupel said Banks wasn't available. Nothing more.

So, reports are circulating on talk radio and social media at a faster clip than Tennessee's uptempo offense. Clarity would be helpful. But college football coaches are reluctant to discuss who won't play and why. That reluctance invariably fuels more rumors.

The Vols can beat Vanderbilt without Hooker and Banks. However, victory is no longer assured – not after the Vols delivered one of the worst defensive performances in school history.

You also can't ignore the psychological impact of the defeat. Ever since the Vols toppled Alabama on the third Saturday of October, they have been contending for a berth in the four-team College Football Playoff.

The playoffs are gone now. A massive letdown would be a natural reaction.

Perhaps Heupel can rally the troops. South Carolina coach Shane Beamer did.

The Gamecocks played their worst game of the season in losing to Florida 38-6 the week before the Tennessee game. They responded with their best game in Beamer's two seasons as coach.

LSU first-year coach Brian Kelly also turned failure into success this season. The Tigers looked in disarray in losing their opener to Florida State. And they looked helpless in losing 40-13 to Tennessee at Tiger Stadium a few weeks later.

But look at them now. They have won the SEC West and are in the running for the playoffs.

Tennessee still could qualify for a New Year's Six bowl. It also could win 10 regular-season games for the first time since 2003 and finish in the top 10 for the first time in 21 years.

Those promising possibilities could hinge on how Milton plays.

Milton's decision-making and passing accuracy drew criticism last season. And after he ran out of bounds on the last play in a close loss to Ole Miss, I wondered whether he would ever take another meaningful snap for Tennessee.

Based on how little he has played this season, who’s to say if his decision-making has improved? But he’s a more accurate passer, especially on deep throws.

And, as always, his arm strength turns heads. He makes throws that few quarterbacks can. That includes many NFL quarterbacks.

Milton had a chance to show off his arm in the Missouri game. He didn’t disappoint. He completed all three of his passes for 105 yards. And when he relieved Hooker in the final minutes against South Carolina, he completed four of eight passes for 108 yards.

I don’t know if Milton will handle the nuances of the position well enough to succeed Hooker as Tennessee’s starting quarterback next season. But I do know that anytime he plays he has the potential to make a memorable throw.

And he's capable of making enough memorable throws to beat Vanderbilt.

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