Wiedmer: Enigmatic Vols need focus for Florida

Wiedmer: Enigmatic Vols need focus for Florida

September 10th, 2017 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Butch Jones and the Vols enter the T to take the field. The Indiana State Sycamores visited the University of Tennessee Volunteers at Neyland Stadium in NCAA football action of September 9, 2017.

Photo by Robin Rudd /Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE — Thanks to a preposterously easy 91-yard opening kickoff return for a touchdown by true freshman Ty Chandler, it took the University of Tennessee football team exactly 14 seconds to gain a lead it would never relinquish in Saturday 's 42-7 victory over visiting Indiana State.

Unfortunately, it may take quite a bit longer than 14 days to figure out just exactly how good Team 121 can be before this season ends.

What we do know today — the annual litmus test against Florida possibly no more than six days away, depending on the whims of Hurricane Irma — is that the Volunteers are now 2-0 for the season. But isn't that also about all we know after the Mercedes-Benz Miracle over Georgia Tech last Monday night, as well as Saturday's win against the overmatched Sycamores?

Isn't this Big Orange bunch, to paraphrase a Winston Churchill observation once upon a time concerning Russia, still "a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma"?

The Vols are certainly good enough, or lucky enough, or both, to be undefeated. They're also seemingly vulnerable enough in both coaching and personnel to wind up with a third straight 8-4 record, especially if they again fall to the Gators in Gainesville, despite's Florida's perceived frailties at the moment.

But they also have enough potential to go 10-2, and that's throwing in an uncertain loss somewhere beyond an all-but-certain Oct. 21 setback at Alabama. Not even Butch Jones might currently expect to beat the top-ranked Crimson Tide, but not another game on the schedule would appear to be an obvious loss.

Yet Jones didn't exactly sound like a coach overly confident of winning more than eight or nine games following the victory over Indiana State.

"We've got to get better in a hurry," he said, noting the Vols forced no turnovers five days after forcing two against Georgia Tech that spelled the difference in victory and defeat.

"We still have a long way to go," he added. "There are still things we need to do to get better."

Unless you're Alabama, almost every college football team needs to do some things to get better. Or a lot of things.

Certainly, one could hope the Vols might have produced more than 395 yards of total offense against a fairly pedestrian FCS team such as Indiana State. This is Indiana State football, after all. Larry Bird doesn't have a nephew about to walk through that door to throw touchdowns or hit football 3-pointers with his golden toe.

There's also the possibility of a Tennessee quarterback controversy, given that neither Quinten Dormady nor Jarrett Guarantano currently has the look of an SEC champion QB.

On the flip side, less than a week after surrendering 13 of 18 third-down conversions to Georgia Tech, the Vols held the Sycamores without a single third-down conversion in 11 attempts.

"What I liked," Jones said, "is (the players') resolve, their resiliency, their willingness to work. I do like the work ethic of this group and their everyday willingness to get better."

Normally, history would strongly indicate a need for the Vols to play better if they expect to triumph in Florida's Swamp, assuming Irma allows such a game to continue without interruption. But the Gators were so inept offensively against Michigan on Sept. 2 that these Vols would seem supremely capable of winning in the Swamp for the first time since 2003.

But this is also the same Big Orange bunch that couldn't shake a single football loose from Indiana State a week after the Sycamores coughed up two in a loss to Eastern Illinois. And the same team that surrendered 535 rushing yards to Georgia Tech. A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, indeed!

Yet because it's Florida, maybe none of that matters.

"We know the rivalry," Kendal Vickers said late Saturday afternoon. "We don't like them and they don't like us. We'll be ready for it."

Added Kahlil McKenzie: "It's Florida week. It's time to get going. It's the real season now."

And no matter how much an enigma these Vols may seem to be at the moment, there is no mystery about the importance of Florida week.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com

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