I am not sure why, but I had an uneasy feeling about Tennessee’s opener with Ball State. I mentioned on my radio show that I feared the Vols might stagger from the blocks and lead something like 16-9 going into the fourth quarter before winning 30-9 or something like that.
It’s called Battered Vols Syndrome. Tennessee has been down for so long, Big Orange fans almost come to expect it. Too often, the Vols have made teams like Ohio, Appalachian State, UAB, Georgia State, North Texas and a few others, look proficient.
This wasn’t the case Thursday night when Ball State came to town. The Vols set the tone early and scored 23 seconds into the game after an interception. They led 17-0 at the end of the first and 38-0 by halftime. This was a thorough demolition of the Cardinals that should give Tennessee fans lots to look forward to this year.
And Big Orange Nation should be excited. Ever since the loss to Purdue (which sort of felt like the 2020 election, a win that was stolen), Tennessee fans have been chomping at the bit to get the 2022 campaign under way. The off-season had been eventful and full of optimism. Quarterback Hendon Hooker is a dark-horse favorite to win the Heisman. There are a stable of quality receivers back. Same for the running backs. Ditto the offensive line.
So, the Vols should have won big over a team that’s predicted to finish last in its division of the Mid-American Conference. Feel good about it. Tennessee won big.
But it was just Ball State.
Still, this is what Tennessee needed to do. Win easily, roll offensively and get a lot of people in the game. I dare say Tennessee could have scored close to 80 or 90 points if it wanted to. Honestly, I thought Tennessee coach Josh Heupel and staff experimented a little bit. I think Heupel gave Pitt a little eye candy here and there, possibly to throw the Panthers off the scent when they see film of this game.
I liked the fact that Hooker threw for over 200 yards. I liked that Joe Milton threw for over 100 yards. I liked the fact that the Vols threw for over 300 yards and ran for over 200 yards. Seven different Vols scored touchdowns. That’s telling. But the Vols were very vanilla in the process. It was kind of like a high school jamboree. The Vols didn’t show just a whole lot.
Some concerns: I was curious about the defense. Yes, it created turnovers, but I thought it was a bit soft on the edges and allowed too many completions. Plus, Tennessee didn’t offer much of a pass rush. I think that might have been by design. But if it wasn’t, that’s a big red flag.
Overall, it was a nice victory, a solid victory, not to mention convincing, which it needed to be. Neyland Stadium was a bit of a laboratory. This was a great start, irrespective of the caliber of opponent.
The Vols did what they needed to do.
There are things to work on, things to clean up, playbook pages to open up next week. The good news is that the Vols have played someone with a different colored jersey and have some game film to evaluate.
Was it perfect? Not at all. There are things to repair, things to build on. But the good news is that it was just Week One. Teams typically don’t start in mid-season form.
But Tennessee did what it needed to do: win big over heavy underdog.
Jim Steele is a correspondent for Magic Valley Publishing and the host of The Pressbox radio show, which airs from 4-6 p.m. CT, Monday-Thursday on 95.9 FM, WRJB, Camden, Tenn.