KNOXVILLE — And then John Kelly fumbled. For the first time all year. After turning a short pass from quarterback Quinten Dormady into a 44-yard gain.
If you want to focus on one play to sum up the futility present throughout Tennessee's 41-0 loss to Georgia on Saturday afternoon inside a sold-out, checkerboarded Neyland Stadium, that third-quarter turnover by the Volunteers' best running back would be as good as any.
Not that the Vols appeared to have much of a chance of winning before that miscue, given the 24-0 hole they were in at that moment. After all, this was a Big Orange bewilderment that included: Dormady being intercepted on the first play from scrimmage; an offense that was 1-for-12 on third-down conversions and gained but 142 total yards; and a punt from the normally terrific Trevor Daniel that never rose more than four feet off the ground before being blocked by the Bulldogs' D'Andre Walker's helmet early in the fourth quarter.
If this was to be the Vols' argument for embattled fifth-year coach Butch Jones deserving a little job security, he might as well call for the moving van before the entirety of the Big Orange Nation does it for him.
But the Vols had also rallied from a 24-3 hole to win on this same field two years ago. They'd beaten the Bulldogs on a Hail Mary at the horn last season at Sanford Stadium. So seeing Kelly race up the field, momentarily running fast and free, a touchdown possibly in his very near future, provided the most fleeting of moments to believe in another Tennessee comeback attempt, if only not to waste this wonderful late September football Saturday.
But then there was a collision. And white-shirted Georgia Dawgs pointing the other way.
Tennessee's defeat was complete.
Or as Jones noted afterward, his voice sounding more reflective than combative: "It was as bad of an offensive performance as I've ever been a part of, and it's inexcusable."
That it was, and nothing screamed of the mess that Jones, his team, the fans and first-year Tennessee athletic director John Currie find themselves in moving forward than the swift exodus of the majority of Neyland's 102,455 fans as the fourth quarter began.
Jones might be right that this week's open date comes at a good time for a team that is 0-2 in the Southeastern Conference, but given this was the Vols' worst home loss since a 45-0 thumping at the hands of Vanderbilt in 1905, it will take a 180-degree turnaround for these guys to play before another sellout crowd in Neyland for the rest of the year.
Also seemingly gone is any hope of winning the SEC East as well as reaching any top-tier bowl game, especially with a trip to top-ranked Alabama on Oct. 21.
Yes, the Vols might yet finish 9-3, and it would be difficult for Currie to can Jones should that prove true. But they have now lost one gut-wrencher to Florida on the last play of the game and one blowout to Georgia in which they either failed to show up or demonstrated they are now completely overmatched against the Bulldogs.
Neither of those explanations helps the long-term employment future of Jones.
But just as every coach in the SEC West who has had to deal with Alabama's Nick Saban the past 10-plus seasons probably feels overmatched against the top-ranked Crimson Tide, a similar fate might be about to befall the rest of the SEC East as it pertains to second-year Georgia coach Kirby Smart, who was mentored by Saban for nine seasons in Tuscaloosa.
Smart went 8-5 last season, losing at home to Vanderbilt and Georgia Tech. Much as Saban went 12-2 and won the SEC West during his second season at Bama after a 7-6 season his first year on the job, the seventh-ranked Bulldogs are now 5-0 overall and 2-0 in the league.
It's fine for Baylor School graduate and Tennessee linebacker Colton Jumper to say of the Bulldogs, "They're not as good as we made them out to be," but Georgia certainly looks like the Beast of the East right now, even if the gap between it and Saban's Tide would appear to be quite wide as it pertains to the SEC championship game.
Still, in less than two years Smart seems to have Georgia in far better shape than Jones has Tennessee in his fifth season on the job. That can't comfort Currie. Or the Big Orange Nation. Or anyone else who rightly sees similarities between the dynasty Saban built and the powerhouse Smart seems to be constructing.
As Jones noted in defeat, it is a long season. Other than that road trip to Bama, the Vols should still have a chance to win every other game. But that's if they play the way they did down the stretch against Georgia Tech in the double-overtime win to open the season and throughout the heartbreaking loss to Florida. Playing as they did against Georgia and Massachusetts the past two weekends, the Vols might be favored to win but twice more this season — against Southern Miss and at Missouri.
Aware that his Bulldogs had just earned the school's 800th win in football, Smart said of his alma mater: "I think Georgia is one of the greatest programs in the country."
If Saturday be the guide, Tennessee slips further from the greatness it enjoyed in the 1990s with each succeeding game and season.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org.