Hargis: Vols fall flat with title hopes on the line

AP photo by Artie Walker Jr. / South Carolina tight end Jaheim Bell dives for the end zone to score on a 19-yard catch during the first half of Saturday night's game in Columbia, S.C.
AP photo by Artie Walker Jr. / South Carolina tight end Jaheim Bell dives for the end zone to score on a 19-yard catch during the first half of Saturday night's game in Columbia, S.C.

What had already been a frustrating day for the University of Tennessee's national championship hopes got more infuriating once the fifth-ranked Volunteers actually took the field Saturday night as South Carolina sledgehammered any hopes of UT claiming one of the four College Football Playoff spots.

Both Baylor and Illinois failed to hold late leads against teams ahead of the Vols in the latest CFP rankings, eventually letting No. 4 TCU and No. 3 Michigan off the hook, and No. 2 Ohio State and No. 1 Georgia had followed with unimpressive road wins.

Nearly every college football season has that one weekend filled with upsets and close calls for highly ranked teams, but surely No. 5 Tennessee — with so much riding on its final two regular-season games against overmatched opponents — wouldn't become the lone favorite to succumb to an upset Saturday.

Not against a South Carolina offense that ranked 92nd nationally and had managed just six points against Florida the previous week and only 10 against Missouri earlier this season.

Considering every other team with legitimate CFP hopes had struggled before maintaining its standing, all the Vols had to do was find a way to exit Williams-Brice Stadium with a win, regardless of how ugly it might be, and they would remain squarely in the playoff hunt.

Instead, an inexplicably uninspired UT defense — which entered the game allowing a respectable 21.9 points per game — looked utterly confused from the opening possession, giving up 21 points in South Carolina's first 21 snaps and 355 first-half yards, ultimately turning in as pathetic a four-quarter performance as any Vols unit since the dismal days of Sal Sunseri.

What had been a struggling South Carolina team moved the ball at will, posting 606 total yards in bookending the game with 21-point first and fourth quarters while rolling up 63 points — the most scored by a Gamecocks team over Tennessee — as it looked motivated to atone for last week's anemic result.

Instead of orange helmets, Tennessee would have been better off debuting a secondary that could cover anyone in garnet and black as South Carolina receivers routinely found openings in the coverage for big gains, and Spencer Rattler, who had thrown only eight touchdown passes in 10 games, looked more like the Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback as he torched UT by completing 30 of 37 attempts for 438 yards and a school-record six scores.

"End of the day, we didn't handle anything the way we needed to," Vols coach Josh Heupel said after the loss. "Whether it was man coverage or zone coverage, they managed to make plays. You just can't do that in this league, against anymore.

"Just a disappointing performance by everybody. We didn't get it done."

The domination began from the game's opening possession as a Tennessee defense that had not allowed a first-possession touchdown by an opponent all season gave up South Carolina's 75-yard drive to the end zone and never recovered after falling behind.

Even when the Vols got a rare defensive stop, as they did on third-and-goal with 12:33 to go and needing to hold South Carolina to a field goal to keep the deficit at two possessions, a personal foul penalty gave the Gamecocks a new set of downs. Two plays later, Rattler hit Jaheim Bell for a 2-yard score to put the game away.

Injury was then added to insult, literally, soon after that series when Heisman hopeful Hendon Hooker — who finished with 247 passing yards and three touchdowns — went down awkwardly and did not return after what appeared to be a lower leg injury.

That put an emphatic ending on a pathetic Palmetto State night for the Vols, an embarrassing result that can be added to the list of gut-punch late-season losses Tennessee's program has suffered through the years.

Was it more reminiscent of the 1992 one-point setback to the same South Carolina program when a win would have kept the Vols in line to reach the Southeastern Conference championship game? Or the 1996 humbling at Memphis when sixth-ranked UT — which entered 6-1 and still in line for a Bowl Alliance berth — was upset by a 26-point underdog?

More than either of those, such a listless performance in this setting was more similar to the 2001 loss to LSU in the SEC title game, where a win over a team the Vols had handled earlier in the season would have guaranteed a Rose Bowl berth to play for the national title. Instead the Tigers rallied for a double-digit upset that relegated UT to the unwanted Citrus Bowl instead.

Had the Vols actually shown up with the effort it would have taken to beat the inspired Gamecocks on Saturday, a win would not have guaranteed a spot in the national title game, but it would certainly have kept them in line to remain one of the teams with the best odds to reach the College Football Playoff.

Instead, Tennessee faces a week of soul searching without much time to sulk before traveling once again to face suddenly hot Vanderbilt, which brings a two-game league winning streak into next weekend's matchup.

"End of the day, we didn't coach or play well enough," Heupel said. "This one hurts. It's an opportunity lost. Disappointed for our players. They hurt, our coaches hurt and I hurt."

Contact Stephen Hargis at shargis@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6293. Follow him on Twitter @StephenHargis.