If the SEC has taught us anything this season, it’s that there is only one constant, one thing that is unlikely to waver from its course, no matter what it faces from here on. No. 1 Alabama was projected as the conference’s best team this summer, and it has lived up to that billing with ease, save for a moderately distressing stretch early in its game at Ole Miss. For practically the entirety of the rest of the conference, a menagerie of offensively limited, defensively toothless, inexperienced, talent-deprived outfits, expecting consistent performance across several weeks may be asking too much. There is Alabama and there is everyone else. I suspect this will become clearer as the season progresses and the Crimson Tide, as they are wont to do, mechanically submit the opponents standing in their way.
But while Nick Saban’s charges go about their business, there is the matter of sorting out the rest of the pecking order. In the East division, that means figuring out whether No. 11 Tennessee can outlast Florida and Georgia to claim a spot in the conference championship game. The Volunteers took one big leap in that journey on Saturday, and they landed on one of the craziest endings we’ll see in 2016.
With 10 seconds remaining and the Bulldogs trailing by four after Tennessee sacked quarterback Jacob Eason in the end zone and recovered it for a touchdown, No. 25 Georgia landed a seemingly decisive blow. Eason connected with wide receiver Riley Ridley for a 47-yard touchdown that gave the Bulldogs a three-point lead and lifted red-clad fans in Athens to their feet. All Georgia needed to do was shut down a last-gasp Hail Mary, and it would have a signature victory.
Georgia could not do that. Tennessee wide receiver Jauan Jennings hauled in quarterback Josh Dobbs’s heave for a 43-yard score.
The final play will get plenty of airtime in the coming days, but you can’t really get a sense of how insane this game was without watching the final few minutes. The scoring back-and-forth that played out late in the fourth quarter was difficult to process in real time. The way it unfolded, though, reinforces the volatile state of affairs in the SEC.
Tennessee’s charge entering 2016 was clear: win the East. This was a goal rooted not in desperation from a fan base exasperated by the program’s struggles in the post-Fulmer era, but a rational assessment of the lay of the land in the division. Florida was breaking in a journeyman quarterback and lacked the sort of playmaking talent that could really test Tennessee’s defense. Georgia was installing a true freshman under center in the first year of a new coaching tenure. Neither the Gators nor the Bulldogs, it seemed, looked capable of denying a Volunteers squad that finished last season with six consecutive wins after nearly knocking off Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Tennessee had proven performers on offense (quarterback Dobbs, running backs Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara) and studs on defense (linebackers Darrin Kirkland and Jalen Reeves-Maybin, cornerback Cameron Sutton, end Derek Barnett), and a new highly coveted coordinator (Bob Shoop) to unleash them.
Yet the Volunteers spent the first four weeks of the season giving off the impression they wouldn’t rise to the occasion. They barely survived at home against Appalachian State. They handled a rebuilding Virginia Tech team thanks in no small part to an abundance of Hokies turnovers. They let Ohio hang around at Neyland Stadium into the fourth quarter. They yielded 21 consecutive points to the Gators. Tennessee’s fortunes seemingly turned around at halftime of that game, as it scored 38 consecutive points en route to a 10-point win that snapped an 11-game losing streak to Florida. It was exactly the sort of win Tennessee needed, not least because it glossed over the series of uninspiring efforts that came before it.
But amid the euphoria of a critical intra-division victory, it was easy to lose sight of what lay in store for the Volunteers, and its significance as it pertains to their quality. Tennessee is not a constant, not the unyielding force residing in Tuscaloosa.
This is a harsh standard, but the difference is what made the Volunteers’ trip to Sanford Stadium such a dicey proposition, even against a Georgia team still reeling from a blowout loss at Ole Miss that seemed an apt reflection of the Bulldogs’ state in the first year of Kirby Smart’s regime. Tennessee managed to survive it, but not without calling into question its status as the East’s best team, its undisputed claim to the division throne. Watching the Volunteers over a string of games, you get the sense the rest of this season won’t be nearly as easy as their discrete parts suggest. An offense guided by an experienced passer and a defense stuffed with NFL athletes shouldn’t have had to play it so close just to get here. But if this unstable, unpredictable existence in the SEC’s non-Alabama sphere has not failed Tennessee so far, it may not the rest of the way.
For the Volunteers, Saturday’s win offers validation in a very important sense. They have upended their chief rivals in the East, and now their path to the league title game in December is clear, despite challenging tests against Texas A&M and Alabama over the next two weeks. The other validation Tennessee needs will come when it begins to display the unswerving level of play that distinguishes its likely opponent in Atlanta, the Tide, as a sort of different species in the SEC. For now, settling for close, thrilling wins in hostile environments isn’t such a bad thing.