Now we know. If Tennessee is to go bowling in Coach Butch Jones’ second season, the Vols will have to beat in-state rival Vanderbilt Saturday in Nashville.
As they have in some other games, the Vols wasted a number of scoring opportunities when their offense sputtered and stalled. It allowed Missouri to take a wild 29-21 win Saturday night.
Oh, the Vols played it close to the vest for three quarters. It was knotted at 13-all at intermission. In a lackluster third quarter, the scoring was limited to a Missouri field goal.
It was then that Coach Gary Pinkel’s experienced offensive team led by Maty Mauk. played long ball.
Vols senior defensive back Justin Coleman never found the sideline pass from Mauk to senior Jimmie Hunt for a 73-yard catch-and-run touchdown with 10:42 left in the game to take a 23-13 lead.
The Tigers, who are closing in on an East Division title, added some insurance points on another Mauk touchdown pass, but missed point after attempts gave Tennessee hope and set the stage for one of the more bizarre finishes in Neyland Stadium history.
It was the second fourth quarter touchdown pass that gave the Tigers two opportunities to take advantage of man-on-man coverage by the Vols cornerbacks.
The secondary had been a weakness on this young Vols team and it reared its ugly head on a night that could have made the Vols bowl eligible with a chance to close the regular season with seven wins.
Now they must beat Vanderbilt to finish 6-6 and improve by one game over last season. A minor bowl game and 6-6 doesn’t have the cache of 7-5, but it is what it is.
If they lose to Vanderbilt, it would negate much of the good that Jones has built to this point. The Commodores are one of the worst offensive teams in college football. They have three wins on the season, none of them impressive.
An upset over Tennessee would make the Commodores’ season and with all the Tennessee players recruited from the Mid-state by Jones, it would be damaging to the Vols quest to upgrade a program that has struggled through three coaching changes.
The Vols pulled closer with a late touchdown at the 1:52 mark and quarterback Josh Dobbs’ Superman-like flight over defenders for a two-point conversion that brought the deficit to 29-21.
That lengthy 79-yard scoring drive took 4½ minutes off the clock and set up the first of what would be two onside kicks. The first onside kick was recovered by the Vols, but was negated by them being called off-sides after a lengthy replay.
A re-kick was also an onside kick that never traveled the required 10 yards even though it was touched first by a Missouri player.
An officiating crew seemed befuddled during both onside kicks. The officials attempted to clearly explain what had happened on both kicks, but both attempts had to be reviewed.
But Tennessee didn’t deserve to win the game. They made too many critical errors in crunch time. Their clock management was up for second-guessing.
Missouri wasn’t that much more impressive, but the Tigers have been a team that has found ways to end up on the winning side of the scoreboard.
Missouri next tackles Arkansas, a team that is improving and upset Ole Miss Saturday.
Missouri is a team that has now won eight straight SEC road games. It takes intestinal fortitude to be able to accomplish that.
The Vols need to show more of that type of mental and physical toughness. They need to take their frustrations out on a team that has nothing to play for in Vanderbilt.
Tennessee has some work to do to put away teams in the upper level of the SEC. Missouri is a team that sneaks up on you. They tend to play to the level of competition and the Vols couldn’t bring their game up to that point when it mattered most.