JOE BIDDLE: UT’s dream dies in Death Valley

(Photo: WKRN)
(Photo: WKRN)

Tennessee’s football team has no one to blame but themselves.

They had a roster that was predicted in preseason to win the SEC East, but it was not to be.

The Vols had to rely on LSU to defeat Florida Saturday, but the Tigers botched a last minute drive when they came up short on two runs from third and fourth and goal from the Florida one-yard line.

Tennessee’s division hopes went up in smoke.

You can blame the Vols fate on a rash of injuries to key players during the season.

Florida could have used the same excuse, but they went into the bowels of Death Valley against a No. 16 ranked LSU team that was heavily favored to beat the No. 23 Gators, 16-10.

It was a game of huge proportions to many, especially Florida coach Jim McElwain. He celebrated his second straight East title in as many years in Gainesville. Butch Jones has run the Vols program for four years without a division title.

And to think LSU interim coach Ed Orgeron was thought to be removing the interim tag if his team could beat Florida.

But Coach O. looked like a deer in the headlights as he badly bungled the game clock on the final drive that left his team two of five in the red zone and only one touchdown. It’s likely this game made Coach O. a career assistant coach.

The final play was designed for LSU sophomore running back Derrius Guice to go left, but instead he went right – right into the teeth of the Gator defense. Game over.

The Tigers had four chances from first and goal to cross the goal line. They were down 16-10 late in the game. A touchdown and point after kick would not only have given the job to Orgeron, but more importantly for Tennessee’s team and fans would have given the Vols the East division title and a second shot to beat No. 1 ranked Alabama.

Instead it was Florida that got good news and bad news Saturday. The good news was that Florida won, putting the Gators in the SEC Championship Game. The bad news is they have to play No. 1 and undefeated Alabama.

Tennessee’s games against Missouri in Neyland Stadium and at Vanderbilt next week meant nothing the minute Florida took care of LSU.

A TV sideline reporter questioned Jones how he felt about Florida’s win as the Vols left for halftime. He told her she was the first one to inform him of their fate.

It was an offensive fireworks show in Neyland Stadium. The Vols defense gave up 372 yards of offense to Mizzou in the first half, while Tennessee earned 317 yards and held a 21-20 halftime lead.

Missouri piled up 740 yards, but the Vols took a 63-37 decision. It was Tennessee’s worst defensive showing in school history.

“I told you last week we’re not going to win the stat battle,’’ Jones said after the game that placed his team at 8-3 overall and 4-3 in SEC play. “We knew it was going to be this kind of game.’’

It will be interesting to see how the Vols finish their regular season.

This season, Jones saw a starter leave the team, another was dismissed from the team. He had a long list of season ending injuries and other numerous injuries that kept key players out of games for a number of games.

Jones still had enough quality players that were capable of winning out down the stretch.

Next season will be important for Butch Jones. Expectations will still remain high on Rocky Top. They saw heralded running back Jalen Hurd leave the team because he thought he was playing in a system that didn’t fit his future. Hurd was unpopular with a number of players and it turned out the team losing Hurd was addition by subtraction.

Fans lost faith in offensive coordinator Mike Debord’s game plans and play-calling.

Thinking back, Florida would be the last team Tennessee should have counted on to help them win a Division championship. The blood between the two programs and fan bases dates back to when Steve Spurrier became Florida’s coach and verbally jousted with Tennessee fans, as well as other SEC teams.

They could take some consolation over a successful Senior Day. Senior quarterback Josh Dobbs left on a high note. He ran for 190 yards and two touchdowns and hit 15 of 22 passes for 223 yards and three touchdowns.

But what happened in Baton Rouge will be something this team will remember forever.

Joe Biddle is a WKRN.com sports columnist. He is also a member of the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame. He can be reached at joebiddle11@gmail.com.