KNOXVILLE — So much for going 12-0.
But could this 2019 University of Tennessee football team conceivably go 0-12?
We’ll attempt to answer that question by walking onto the Neyland Stadium turf, Saturday’s sunlight fading far less swiftly than the home team just had. A study in unbridled passion and joy at that moment, Georgia State coach Shawn Elliott wasn’t tempering his thoughts about why his Panthers shocked the Volunteers 38-30.
“We were in better physical condition,” he said. “We wore them down. We wore them down in the trenches.”
“We didn’t play a lot of guys,” he added, “but we pushed them around up front.”
“We outplayed the Tennessee Vols today,” an emotional Elliott continued, his blue coaching shirt soaked with sweat since the first quarter, but his whole body now drenched following a water-cooler bath. “This is the SEC. They say it just means more in the SEC. It meant more to us today.”
They’ve now been playing football at Georgia State for 10 years. UT is beginning its 123rd season in the sport. Over those first 122 autumns and Saturday’s season opener, the Vols have lost a total of 391 games. On the list of the 10 most embarrassing of the defeats inside Neyland, losing to a Panthers program that went 2-10 a year ago surely would be in the top three, along with that 1958 loss to Chattanooga and the 1975 defeat against North Texas.
“I think we had a 2% chance of winning this game,” said Panthers quarterback Dan Ellington, whose stunning 22-yard touchdown run with 4:45 to go all but iced the upset after his two earlier touchdown passes kept Georgia State in the game. “At least that’s what the experts in Vegas said.”
Indeed, the Vols were favored by anywhere from 24 points to 27 points in almost every betting line. Throw out UT’s last-second touchdown to pull within 38-30, and the Panthers defied the experts by 39 to 41 points.
No wonder one of the trending social media topics among disgruntled Volniacs focused on how many days until Rick Barnes’ basketball team was scheduled to begin fall practice. (Sept. 24, just in case you’re interested.)
And the Big Orange Nation has every right to show concern bordering on widespread panic.
Another quote from Elliott regarding Tennessee’s line play: “I thought we had quickness in our defensive line that could give them problems, and I thought our offensive line could push them around a little bit.”
Nor did second-year UT coach Jeremy Pruitt appear to disagree, saying, “You can look at the yards rushing. Georgia State rushed for 213 and Tennessee rushed for 93. I think that tells the tale.”
But could it tell the tale for the next 11 regular-season games? Forget facing BYU inside this same Neyland Stadium on Saturday night, though Volsville could be forgiven should it experience numerous nightmares between now and then over meeting another team whose colors are blue and white and whose record a year ago also was 2-10.
No offense to Elliott, who’s widely regarded to be one of the best offensive line coaches in the sport, but if Tennessee is getting pushed around by the Panthers in the trenches, what do you think happens when it faces Florida, Georgia and Alabama?
Beyond that, Ellington was far and away the best quarterback on the field on Saturday. The other schools who recruited him beyond Georgia State?
“South Alabama and Miami of Ohio,” he said.
Yet against the Vols, the senior from Olive Branch, Mississippi, by way of Itawamba Community College looked like a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate.
And that 22-yard fourth-quarter touchdown run, the one that left two Vols face down on the turf attempting to corral him?
“I made a couple of moves and saw nothing but grass in front of me and checkers in the end zone,” Ellington said. “I just had to get there.”
Asked if he’d ever had a better touchdown run, he replied, “No, I have not.”
For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. As down as the UT fan base was at the end of this one, there was elation bordering on pandemonium among Panthers fans, especially Elliott’s wife, the former Summer Scruggs, who remains one of the best ever to play tennis for Girls Preparatory School.
Like all coaches’ wives, she lives the highs and lows of athletics more intensely than most. The couple’s daughter Maddyn and son Max by her side, she said this moment had to be “the ultimate” for her husband.
It also provided a light-hearted text from Steve Spurrier’s wife Jerri, whom Summer grew close to when Shawn worked for the Ol’ Ball Coach at South Carolina.
“Jerri and I have this running joke about hot beer,” Summer said. “When we won today, she texted me, ‘I’ll drink a hot beer for y’all tonight.'”
As he attempted to prepare his Panthers for the atmosphere he feared his team would face in Neyland, Elliott ordered the repeated playing of “Rocky Top” at a loud volume during practice.
“It’s a catchy tune,” he said in his postgame remarks. “I just thought we’d annoy the players by playing it.”
Then he momentarily paused before deftly delivering the punchline: “We didn’t hear it much today.”
If the Vols don’t get better in a hurry, neither will the rest of their opponents.