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Harsh lesson from Tennessee football's South Carolina collapse: Title teams play defense | Estes

Gentry Estes
Nashville Tennessean

We’ve probably seen the last of Tennessee football’s orange helmets for a while.

Those guys running around on a nightmarish Saturday night in South Carolina never really looked like the Vols. They sure didn’t play like them, either. First glance at the uniforms and orange lids, you’d think Clemson. Except the Tigers have won four in a row in Columbia.

Even if the Vols ultimately do the same under Josh Heupel one day, I don’t think that would soothe the memory of the night in which Tennessee’s 2022 College Football Playoff hopes were crushed by a 63-38 defeat at South Carolina that was as stunning as a football game can be.

This was the night in which Tennessee’s football renaissance reached the painful realization that the higher a team climbs, the harder it can fall. When the lasting image would be the heartbreaking one of Heisman hopeful quarterback Hendon Hooker lying on a field screaming in pain.

When the Gamecocks and their fans stormed the field and partied like they’d just blown out the best team in college football.

Except they hadn’t beaten the best team in college football.

They’d beaten the best offense in college football.

Never was that difference clearer than on this night, which exposed Tennessee’s defense as a lethal liability and ultimately the reason why the Vols’ very good season will fall just shy of great.

The lesson here is that even in a high-scoring era of college football, the defense still matters. You must be at least respectable on defense to win the biggest prizes. Georgia had the sport’s best defense last year – and maybe this year, too. The Bulldogs haven’t lost a regular-season game since 2020.

Meanwhile, one of the largest misconceptions of the 2022 Vols will be that anyone believed this defense was good enough – despite warning signs – to win a national championship. Florida gained 594 yards against Tennessee. Alabama had 569. Because of it, both the Gators and Crimson Tide were probably closer to winning at Neyland Stadium than they should have been.

Nov 19, 2022; Columbia, South Carolina, USA; South Carolina Gamecocks tight end Jaheim Bell (0) stiff-arms Tennessee Volunteers defensive back Christian Charles (14) in the second half at Williams-Brice Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

Georgia’s win over Tennessee was understandably attached to the Bulldogs’ defense finally being the unit to slow down Heupel’s offense, but that overlooked how often Georgia’s receivers were running wide open in the first half before Kirby Smart quit airing it out after halftime.

Yes, Tennessee has been overmatched defensively. It has also been clutch defensively at times. It has been fortunate with turnovers. It has been solid against the run.

And while you knew this defense was never elite, the hope in Knoxville has been that Tennessee’s dynamite offense was elite enough for both of them.

It wasn’t. South Carolina left no doubt.

Along the way to 606 offensive yards, the Gamecocks scored nine touchdowns on 10 full possessions. Quarterback Spencer Rattler became Drew Brees, completing 30-of-37 for 438 yards and six TDs. The Vols’ secondary was lost and wandering all night long.

Tennessee’s being totally wiped off the field by a fairly pedestrian South Carolina offense defied all reasonable expectations for what we’d witness Saturday.

But it was that kind of Saturday, wasn't it?

By about noon, it was clear that this was going to be one of those absurdly wild college football days that happen once or twice a season, where predictions cease to matter, nothing makes sense and no team is going to be safe.

Total chaos, while close at hand, was held off by TCU and Michigan barely winning at the end. Georgia survived Kentucky. Ohio State survived Maryland.

And Tennessee?

South Carolina was spanked 38-6 by Florida last week, getting outgained by nearly 300 yards by a Gators team that would go on to lose to … Vanderbilt. (Weird Saturday, like I said)

Nothing against the gritty, improving Commodores, but the Vols had to like their chances in Columbia. But even before that, the general question hadn’t been if Tennessee would stumble against Missouri or South Carolina (or at Vandy next week). It was how the other dominoes might fall to allow the 11-1 Vols into the playoff semifinals.

Winning out was an assumption for Tennessee.

I can tell you that the SEC won’t ever be so easy as to assume anything. That it has a way of poking and prodding and weeding out weaknesses. That it has all these potential pitfalls in places like South Carolina’s Williams-Brice Stadium, which has long been a tougher place to play than it gets credit.

But you knew that already.

So I’ll just say this plainly: Tennessee won’t win a national title under Heupel until it plays better defense.

And it'll have to figure out a way to do that despite a fast-break offense that, by its nature, is going to put the defense at a disadvantage and leave it on the field too long.

The Vols had so much going for them this season, but they never had the defense.

To take the next step, they'll have to find one.

Reach Tennessean sports columnist Gentry Estes at gestes@tennessean.com and on Twitter @Gentry_Estes.