Tennessee lost the College Football Playoff on Saturday night. The Vols went down in the most astonishing way – a blistering loss to a mediocre opponent.
Also over is Hendon Hooker’s chance to win the Heisman Trophy. November’s performances are amplified in the race for college football’s highest prize, and for the second time this month, the Vols’ star quarterback was outplayed by his opposing counterpart in a loss. Worse, he was taken out in the fourth quarter after his left knee bent on a run, a non-contact injury that resulted in a torn ACL in his last game with the Vols. What a cruel and unfair end to a player who once again made Tennessee fun.
Coach Josh Heupel needs to do some soul-searching and assess the staff after this debacle because even if Hooker wasn’t on Heisman’s level, he shouldn’t bear the burden of this loss.
The Vols gave up 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 had in its previous three games combined.
Gamecocks quarterback Spencer Rattler threw eight touchdown passes in the first 10 games of the season. He went for six scores against the Vols (9-2, 5-2) and their porous secondary.
The UT defense guard has been an obstacle since the Music City Bowl loss to cap off last season. The Vols’ pass defense ranks last in the SEC for the second year in a row.
UT’s offense and passing rush helped mask the secondary for most of the season, but they couldn’t stop the Vols from blowing themselves up at Williams-Brice Stadium.
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Attack is Heupel’s forte, so he needs great minds working on his defense. He doesn’t have enough.
South Carolina has 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 “unemployed” on Saturday night – likely the work of a disgruntled Vols fan. The prankster’s hijinks could prove prescient.
If it’s not Banks, defensive backs coach Willie Martinez should be on thin ice. Tennessee has already fired Martinez once, when Butch Jones was a coach. The sequel is not an improvement.
South Carolina’s 63 points marked Tennessee’s most dropped since…wait…1893, when Duke’s 70 points in a rout of UT coincided with Grover Cleveland’s second presidency.
Something – or someone – has to change.
Heupel’s staff inherited a deficient group of defensive backs from the previous regime. However, these staff have failed to address talent and depth deficiencies in the secondary through recruitment, the transfer portal or player development.
The Tennessee high school is in such serious condition that safety Jaylen McCollough remains in the starting lineup despite being charged with aggravated assault after an October arrest for punching a stray drunk. When police spoke to the man, he had a bloody mouth and missing teeth.
McCollough’s attorney mounts a vigorous defense in a case slated for trial by a grand jury. Nothing strong about Tennessee’s defense against the Gamecocks.
The Vols pressured quarterbacks relentlessly in impressive defensive performances against LSU and Kentucky, but they fired Rattler just once, and he completed 30 of 37 passes.
At a pivotal moment in the final game of the third quarter, Rattler moved the chains to third-and-20. The Vols dropped seven defenders into coverage, four of whom drifted 10 yards deeper than the first-down scorers. Antwane Wells Jr. settled into a gaping hole past the four deep defenders for an easy 25-yard gain.
Tennessee center linebacker Jeremy Banks did not travel to South Carolina for undisclosed reasons. Heupel declined to explain Banks’ absence. Unless Banks was ubiquitous, though, it’s hard to see how his play would have altered that result.
Hooker lacked his usual flair and accuracy on a night the Vols needed him to dazzle, and Heisman’s streak of Tennessee without a winner will endure. Two weeks ago, Stetson Bennett IV topped Hooker in UT’s loss to Georgia.
CJ Stroud of Ohio State and Caleb Williams of Southern Cal are now Heisman favorites. Hooker deserved a better ending than hobbling off the field in a loss.
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If the Vols beat Vanderbilt (5-6, 2-5), they’ll be a solid contender for a New Year’s Bowl Six.
Considering where this program was 22 months ago, that’s quite an accomplishment. Considering where this program was a week ago, it’s a consolation prize.
Path to the playoffs becomes clearer for LSU football
No. 6 LSU (9-2, 6-1) is expected to surpass No. 5 Tennessee in the CFP standings after blasting UAB 41-10.
If LSU wins and beats No. 1 Georgia in the SEC Championship, the Tigers should qualify for the playoffs. It had seemed obvious to me for a few weeks, but some experts were in denial. With Tennessee out, no one should be in denial now.
LSU’s path to the playoffs is narrow — Georgia (11-0, 8-0) is a fierce bully — but the Tigers at least have a chance to fight their way, while others, like the favorite from the ACC Clemson, will need help.
three and out
1. The return of quarterback KJ Jefferson from injury prompted Arkansas (6-5, 3-4) to be eligible to bowl in a 42-27 destruction of Ole Miss. Rocket Sanders (232 rushing yards) was the lead, but Jefferson provided the balance. Arkansas lost to Mississippi State and LSU while Jefferson was injured. He played injured in a loss to Liberty. When healthy, Arkansas is among the best teams in the SEC.
2. The Rebels (8-3, 4-3) looked frozen and distant in the middle of the Arkansas tundra. Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin thinks the performance should hurt his bid to coach Auburn. “Maybe if (Auburn) watched the first half, I wouldn’t be (candidate) No. 1 anymore,” Kiffin said, while declining to discuss his interest in the job.
Playing so badly that a rival school no longer wants to steal your coach would be a total failure.
3. Kentucky (6-5, 3-5), losing five of its last seven games, signed coach Mark Stoops to a contract extension. The deal runs through the 2030 season and will increase his salary to $9 million in February. Great Britain joins Missouri in awarding their manager extensions and raises amid disappointing seasons. Coach Jimbo Fisher must be licking his chops at Texas A&M (4-7, 1-6).
The “Topp Rope,” is his weekly SEC football column published on the USA TODAY Network.. If you enjoy Blake’s cover, consider a digital subscription which will allow you to access all of this. Also discover his podcast, SEC Football Unfilteredor access exclusive columns via the Unfiltered SEC Bulletin.