By Jim Steele
Crazy, isn’t it? Tennessee defeated a talented, yet poorly-coached, Texas A&M team 20-13 in front of a sold-out, checkered Neyland Stadium Saturday.
And I’ve never heard such belly aching.
I think Tennessee fans have deluded themselves into believing this team is at least a playoff team. Maybe those fans should put down the bottle. More on that in a moment.
Sure, I was a bit deflated by the effort, but having slept on it, I retraced my steps. Yes, the Vols were a bit lackluster against the Aggies, but, forgive me if I’m wrong, weren’t most pundits predicting this would be a low-scoring, defensive struggle? That’s exactly what we saw Saturday, a classic defensive battle between two teams seeking an identity.
Sure, I’ll admit it. The fan in me was disappointed by the meager offensive effort. Most fans wanted to send out a search party to locate the Vols’ passing game. Count me in that number. Joe Milton Jr. was about as accurate as election pollsters. He threw over or behind receivers numerous times. Sometimes, I get the idea that Tennessee coach Josh Heupel doesn’t have confidence in Milton’s passing ability, which is why the ground game is among the nation’s best.
Something to consider, however: in spite of the fact that the Vols seemingly struggled all game long, they still managed to figure out a way to win the game. They did it through a solid ground attack, defense and the kicking game. When the offense looked like it needed vitamin supplements with iron, the defense held A&M out of the end zone and came up with key takeaways at crucial points in the game.
How about Dee Williams downing a Tennessee punt on the Aggies’ 6-inch line, then, returning an A&M punt for a touchdown moments later? That was the game breaker. When A&M appeared to be driving for a score late in the game, Kamal Hadden picked off a pass with 22 seconds to play to salt the game away.
Were there issues? Yes. But this was perhaps the best defensive effort Tennessee has displayed this year. This isn’t a prolific scoring team that UT fans experienced last year and so it’s imperative that the defense steps up.
What about Milton? Let’s face facts, Tennessee fans have been spoiled by the quality of quarterback play demonstrated by Hendon Hooker last year. Milton is not that guy. He has a cannon for an arm but isn’t nearly as mobile as Hooker. Nor is his decision-making on par.
All I heard was that freshman five-star quarterback Nico Iamaleava needs to replace Milton … and right now. The Vols are 5-1 with Milton at the helm. Yes, he’s been frustrating to watch, at times, especially after what we saw in the Orange Bowl last year, where he was game MVP. He doesn’t have the same receiver corps or line as last year’s team. Nico, I believe, has a bright future, but if he was ready, he’d be starting right now.
David Cutcliffe, while coaching Ole Miss, once told me, “The most popular player among the fans is the backup quarterback.” He said this when he started Romero Miller in front of freshman Eli Manning.
Cutcliffe was right.
UT fans have to be honest. With Milton or Iamaleava, this team is probably destined for an 8-4 or 9-3 record at best. This is a good team, not a great team. Why? Heupel is still facing recruiting demons left behind by disgraced former coach Jeremy Pruitt. Pruitt brought in good players, especially with his boxes of Happy Meals. But he couldn’t consistently reel in the five-star prospects.
Heupel has had to coach up three-and-four-star prospects, and has done so quite well. Landing Iamaleava was big last year, but he was the only five-star the Vols snagged. I see where a few more may be on the way. This will put Tennessee on the same shelf as the college football power brokers like Georgia and Michigan.
Until the Vols can get on the same plateau as the Georgias of the world, fans need to appreciate the effort, albeit frustrating, of this team. This team is good enough to win eight or nine games. With luck, maybe more.
But the reality is Tennessee is a good team this year, not a great team.
Jim Steele is a correspondent for Magic Valley Publishing.