The nature of college football, as currently constructed, is such that any loss by any team at any point puts that team’s national championship status into the hands of a committee.
When Tennessee left Georgia’s Sanford Stadium last weekend with a 27-13 loss, the Vols took their fate out of their own hands. The Vols’ previous placement atop the College Football Playoff rankings became largely irrelevant, and they dropped from No. 1 to No. 5 a few days later in the only poll that matters.
Georgia passed Tennessee, and that was fair. Ohio State passed Tennessee, and that was fair. Michigan passed Tennessee, and that was fair. TCU passed Tennessee, and that was folly — hardly the worst crime in college football history, but nonetheless nonsensical. Expensively crafted programs designed to rank teams without bias show pretty clearly that the Vols are better than the Horned Frogs, but if you want to slot an undefeated Big 12 team over a one-loss SEC team, you’re not crazy. You’re wrong, in this specific case, but you’re not crazy.
Regardless, that loss at Georgia changed things for these Vols. It removed the guarantee that Tennessee squarely controlled its own destiny.
From that point forward, Tennessee’s final three games became a beauty pageant. A home game against Mizzou and then games at South Carolina and Vanderbilt needed to not only be won, but won with style. They needed to pop off the screen.
One screen popped, two more to go.
Tennessee wobbled a bit late in the first half and early in the second half, but the Vols never trailed, and they closed with the ferocity of a team intent on making a statement. They scored 38 points in the final 23 minutes, sending Mizzou back to McGhee Tyson Airport with a 66-24 message to tell the college football world.
Mizzou is not a great football team, but it’s certainly not a bad one. The Tigers entered Saturday with four losses in SEC play by a combined 18 points. Tennessee more than doubled that in one game.
The Tigers entered Saturday’s game 13th nationally in total defense, allowing just 304.1 yards per game. Tennessee produced a program-record 724 yards in one game.
If you were worried that last week’s letdown in Athens would put the Vols’ offense into a funk, you can forget that. The Bulldogs remain the only defense the past two seasons to stop these Vols. Maestro Hendon Hooker put some juice back into his Heisman Trophy campaign with a dazzling day, overcoming at least four drops from his receivers to compete 25 of 35 passes for 355 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions. He added 50 yards and another touchdown on eight carries — a figure that includes 16 yards lost via three sacks.
Tennessee’s defense had some questionable moments Saturday, particularly on the back end. Senior safeties Jaylen McCollough and Trevon Flowers continue to play well at times and then frustrate with their angles and lack of awareness in other moments. Mizzou’s only offense for much of the game was quarterback Brady Cook generating yards with his legs, and that was enough to keep the Tigers on the field and put points on the board. But Cook, to his credit, made a spectacular, NFL-caliber throw to sophomore receiver Dominic Lovett for a 38-yard touchdown, and the PAT cut the Vols’ lead to 28-24 with nearly nine minutes left in the third quarter.
Neyland Stadium tightened up in that moment, and rightfully so. The game should have been decided by that point, and it wasn’t.
Worry not, though.
It soon got decided.
Tennessee’s latest proof that this team is different came as a response to that lead-slicing score. Josh Heupel and his offensive staff put freshman running back Dylan Sampson on the field, and he initiated a two-play sequence that changed everything.
Sampson caught a 7-yard swing pass from Hooker to the Tennessee 32-yard line, and the Vols went warp-speed back to the line and bamboozled the Tigers with an unorthodox formation. Sampson lined up as a receiver to the left, with big junior receiver Bru McCoy at tight end and speedy junior receiver Jalin Hyatt hiding behind senior left guard Jerome Carvin. Sampson went in motion, and nearly everyone in the stadium thought it would be a jet sweep to the the dynamic freshman. It wasn’t. Hooker faked the handoff and dumped the ball out to Hyatt in space, with McCoy out in front of him as a blocker. Hyatt jogged 68 yards to the end zone, and Tennessee had a 25-second touchdown drive that extended the lead back to two scores.
Mizzou punted moments later, and two big plays from Sampson set up a 2-yard touchdown pass to senior tight end Princeton Fant to cap a 41-second touchdown drive. The Vols scored on their next four possessions, too, with drives that lasted 2:20, 0:57, 0:27 and 2:30.
When this offense gets momentum, it’s a spectacle. Mizzou — which, again, has one of the nation’s best defenses on paper — had no chance. The Vols let the second-team offense play the final two drives, but it let those reserves play the actual offense, and two big passes from bazooka-armed Joe Milton III directly or indirectly led to touchdowns with 5:43 and 0:36 left.
The Vols could have slowed it down, but for whatever reason — the need to impress the CFP committee, the need to rub it in the face of a coach (Eliah Drinkwitz) who has run his mouth about Tennessee more than once in recent months, the need to let the reserves get game reps in the team’s actual offense, or all of the above — they didn’t slow the steam. Heupel deemed it a more-steam moment.
What shouldn’t have been a tricky game was a tricky game until it wasn’t. Lulls happen. Games last 60 minutes. After those 60 minutes, Tennessee had 66 points and a 42-point win against a decent team. If Mizzou didn’t want to surrender that many points, it should have played better, or its coach should have been better prepared to align his money with his mouth. If Mizzou wants a chance to repay that punishment next season, it should have a good offseason and play better next season in Columbia. And Tennessee should be prepared for the possibility of playing some angry Tigers next season on the road after beating them 128-48 the past two years.
But that’s another topic for another day.
Mizzou is gone. So is Georgia, at least for now. Tennessee’s focus should now be focused on next week’s game at South Carolina. After that, the Vols should be focused only on in-state rival Vanderbilt in that regular-season finale in Nashville. If Tennessee takes care of those games with at least relative comfort, the odds are these Vols will be in the CFP. If not, they’ll have one of the best resumes ever excluded from the field.
Tennessee doesn’t have complete control over its postseason fate, but the Vols do have at least one hand on the wheel. What these Vols do with that slight grip remains to be seen. Betting against them at this point doesn’t feel safe.