The woman in the grocery line on New Year's Eve turned to her friend and said, "I just feel so sorry for the Vols. That referee should never work again. How can you say the game's over, then let North Carolina kick a field goal?"
Having watched the object of the woman's frustration unfold as I sat in the LP Field press box Thursday night, I figured this would be the overwhelming opinion of most college football fans regarding Tennessee's controversial 30-27 overtime loss to UNC in the Music City Bowl.
Those fans — particularly those bleeding orange — would argue that the Vols were robbed for the second time this season by a bad rule regarding offensive substitutions, or at the very least an extremely questionable interpretation of that rule.
For those of you who missed it, the Tar Heels — having snapped the ball with less than three seconds to play in regulation while having too many men on the field — gleefully accepted a 5-yard penalty for illegal participation, kicked a game-tying field goal on the final play, then won in overtime, as you might expect a basketball power to do.
Never mind that one Big Ten official working the contest had already announced to the sellout crowd that the game was over before quickly backtracking to inform an instantly angry throng that the final play was under review.
Never mind, too, that UT coach Derek Dooley could reasonably argue that the officials should never have allowed the ball to be snapped, that the game should have ended following a curious running play by the Heels that not only failed to secure a first down, but also the clock stoppage that goes with it.
Perhaps something else should have happened, but nothing did, leaving the 6-7 Vols to stew over their third losing season in six years and leaving the Big Orange Nation to blame no one for this bitter defeat save the men in striped shirts.
But fans aren't always the obedient sheep you expect them to be. Some of them see beyond the obvious. Some focus on more than questionable officiating.
Or as Harold S. from Hixson e-mailed me Friday evening, "If you are looking for someone to blame for the Vols' loss to NC, how about the coaching staff?"
There was also this from Dean in Soddy-Daisy: "What Coach Dooley needs to learn is to instill more discipline in his players and more attention to detail — these were responsible for the last second losses (LSU and UNC) to which you refer. I think the football program shows promise after one year, but only if the coaches, players, and fans encourage the principle of taking responsibility for actions and decisions rather than displaced blame on others."
To these ends, Hixson Harold rightly pointed to the Vols' last possession of regulation, when they were handed the ball on the UNC 44 with 1:36 to go and instead of aggressively trying for a first down that would have ended the contest, they meekly rushed three times for a net loss of one, then oddly kicked the ball into the end zone to give the Tar Heels one final possession on the UT 20.
Of course, then UT defensive back Jantzen Jackson greatly compounded problems by earning a 15-yard personal foul penalty on a UNC reception to the Tart Heels' 48. Without that penalty, the Heels would never have been in field goal range, regardless of the officiating.
But what did Jackson say afterward? Did he say he was wrong? Did he say he was sorry?
No, he said, "I guess [the official] wanted me to just push him out of bounds. That's just not how we've been taught to play."
They need to be taught differently. They need to quit trying to make a kill-shot (as the players call them) whenever possible and be satisfied with a clean, solid tackle. It may not put them on ESPN's SportsCenter or a YouTube video but it may save them 15 yards.
Also, the Vols' two leads — one just before the half, one at the end of regulation — stuck around about as long as Lane Kiffin. Maybe they tried to play it too safe. Maybe the other team decided to get serious and score. After all, Thursday was not the first time — Oregon, Florida, Alabama and South Carolina also come quickly to mind — when the opposing seemed capable of scoring whenever it wanted or needed to.
It was as if the Vols were incapable of stopping any good team when it needed to and if that doesn't change soon, UT's recent struggles in the SEC East won't change, either ... no matter how many touchdowns Tyler Bray throws.
To be fair, more than one Vols player said it wasn't fair to compare the North Carolina ending to the LSU loss.
"We had a chance to come back in this one," said Luke Stocker. "We had overtime. We still had a chance to win."
Added fellow senior Chris Walker, "I thought we'd be OK in overtime. I thought we had our heads back up."
The SEC has its head back up today after Alabama, Florida and Mississippi State all won their bowl games in impressive fashion to soften the league's earlier bowl losses from the timid trio of UT, Georgia and South Carolina.
Still, those bowl defeats by the Bulldogs and Vols leave both programs with losing records in the same season for the first time since 1977.
Then as now, UT had a first-year coach, Johnny Majors coming home in 1977, Dooley taking over this year. Georgia, of course, was coached by Dooley's father, Vince, who won his first and only national championship three years later.
The hunch from here is that UGA coach Mark Richt will either quit or be fired before the Dawgs win it all again.
As for Dooley, his own words from Thursday's press conference may hold the key to the Vols' success in the near future.
Said the coach concerning the officiating at the end of the game as well as his coaching staff's decisions, "There will be a lot of things brought up for discussion in the offseason about game management, end-of-the-game management and end-of-the-game rules."
Not to give the guys in the striped shirts a free pass on either LSU or the Music City Bowl, but if Dooley and his staff do a better job with the first two, the third might never have a chance to break Big Orange hearts.
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...