They weren’t supposed to be in the game. Not the Tennessee Volunteers at home against Georgia, not the Memphis Tigers at home against Central Florida.
But then that’s the view from the outside, which is not always clearer than the view from the inside.
“We told them, ‘don’t be surprised if we have success. Stay focused on the task at hand until the game’s over.”’
Those were Tigers coach Justin Fuente’s words. His team stayed with a Central Florida team that beat Penn State and scared South Carolina. But the Tigers gave up two touchdowns in the span of nine seconds and lost 24-17.
No one would call the Memphis Tigers’ or Tennessee Volunteers’ seasons to date successful, but last weekend’s close losses to vastly superior opponents for each team proved they are on the right path.
(Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports)
(AP Photo/Wade Payne)
No doubt, Vols coach Butch Jones and his staff had similar advice for their team before No. 6 Georgia came to Neyland Stadium. In fact, Jones even set up a more reachable goal for his team: get to the fourth quarter with a chance to win. That goal was met, though the ultimate objective was not as UT lost in overtime, 34-31.
From afar, we might have laughed at the mere suggestion the Tigers and Vols would have “success,” the quote marks necessary because we are still talking about two losses. But it also says something that “heartbreaking” is the only fitting description for each game’s outcome.
Odd as it is to say, the Tigers and Vols simultaneously met with failure while overachieving. How did it happen?
Tennessee running back Alden “Pig” Howard appeared to score a go-ahead touchdown in overtime as he hurled himself toward the pylon at the right front corner of Georgia’s end zone. The initial call on the field was a touchdown. But the ball came out of Howard’s hand before he reached his destination. The eye in the sky (instant replay) did not blink and neither did Georgia.
The killer for Memphis came after UCF had tied the game and then kicked off. Marquis Warford returned the ball into a buzz saw named William Stanback. Warford fumbled. Another UCF player picked up the loose ball and scored what would be the winning touchdown.
Those are the gory details. More important, the questions that follow: What comes next for these rebuilding programs? Were those almost, but-not-quite upset victories hopeful signs or further evidence that in Memphis and in Knoxville losing winnable games is a hard habit to break?
“We never gave up and we fought until the very last play,” Vols quarterback Justin Worley said. “I think you have to look at that as an outsider and say, `this team is doing something.’”
That’s a bold statement. But maybe also a correct statement. For Tennessee and for the Tigers.
Which isn’t to say that players on either team are marking down what happened on Saturday as a “moral victory.” Tigers right tackle Nykiren Wellington said they can’t do that.
“Because it wasn’t a victory,” he said in logic impossible to deny.
Does Memphis appear to be improved from a year ago? Many signs say the answer is yes, including the defense being ranked 16th nationally in yards allowed (319.8 per game) in an era in which schemes and rules all seem to tilt toward offenses.
But as the old saying goes, you are what your record says you are. And the Tigers are 1-3, 0-1 in the American Athletic Conference.
Tennessee is 3-3, 0-2 in the SEC. So Jones, in his first year at UT, is saying things like, “it’s another step, it’s another building block,” and “it’s a process” and “we have to learn how to finish.”
So yeah, it’s easy to be skeptical if you want to be.
Not so easy: figuring out how to balance the knowledge that you showed you could hang with a really good team while also accepting the fact you still took a loss.
“Take a peek back there and remind yourself of things you don’t want to do,” UT running back Rajion Neal said of his mindset. “But the biggest thing is don’t dwell on it.”
Fuente, by the way, doesn’t believe that his team was surprised to be in a position to win the game. But he does wonder: Did some of the players allow a dangerous thought to creep forward, giving themselves a moment to ponder how good it would feel to win the game?
“You can’t do that,” Fuente said. “In the last four minutes of the game you have to do the same things you did (at the start) to give yourself a chance.”
And once the game is over, in that immediate and painful aftermath when you know you can’t get back what might have been?
Tigers safety Anthony Watson did the only thing that made sense to him. He went to work, studied film.
“Just wanted to evaluate the mistakes I made and the defensive mistakes we made to see what we can do better,” he said.
Doing better can happen as soon as this Saturday, Oct. 12, at undefeated Houston. That’s the next opportunity to get a real W and, well, not have this conversation.
“Can’t mope on it,” Watson said. “Have to move forward.”
And be ready to make good on the next opportunity to finish.