In the midst of sports’ statistical revolution, with more data at our disposal than ever before, it’s still impossible to foresee when and where the law of averages will swoop in to return the balance. In sample sizes of all shapes, teams can be luckier than others, but eventually we expect instances of true chance–like which way an oblong ball bounces once it hits the ground–to level out.
So if you were thinking that after four remarkable comebacks (almost all aided by some semblance of good luck) in the season’s first five weeks Tennessee would continue to carry fortune on its side, we knew you’d be wrong.
As Tennessee rolled into Kyle Field, looking to further its seemingly fateful run at a division title and possibly so much more, we knew the Vols would eventually face a situation where the bounces didn’t go their way. We knew that how they’d respond would truly define them.
Luck is a scoundrel and it’s not to be trusted. It finally turned its back on Tennessee this Saturday afternoon in College Station.
Balls didn’t bounce Tennessee’s way early, injuries mounted, and penalties stacked up as Tennessee went to the locker room trailing 21-7 despite outgaining its opponent, 262-215. Coming out of the break one got the immediate sense that if the Vols could somehow rebound, everything would be okay.
When they took the ball and started to drive down the field, picking up their first third-down conversion of the day and waltzing into Aggie territory, it felt familiar. After all, the Vols have regularly made incredible second-half adjustments on their way to 5-0.
However, when the ball came loose from Joshua Dobbs’ grasp early in the third quarter, took a bounce in the wrong direction and then wound up in A&M’s hands, it suddenly didn’t. From that point forward (and maybe never at all in the grand scheme of things), it was no longer about fortune or destiny. It was about survival.
Still, Tennessee continued to move the football at will, and the defense made stops that gave the visitors repeated chances at getting back in the game. Tennessee continued to turn those chances back over.
Three more times in the third quarter alone, Tennessee gave the ball back (a pair of fumbles and an interception of a perfectly thrown pass that was bobbled and then tipped gently into the waiting hands of an Aggie defender).
At that point, it became clear that the law of averages was here to collect, and it was refusing to take installments. This law was requiring Tennessee to pay its debts in full.
Texas A&M was charging interest. The injuries continued, the penalties continued to slant in A&M’s favor (a largely self-inflicted wound, though some would argue otherwise), and the Aggies continued to punish the Vols mercilessly for their mistakes.
Texas A&M managed 21 points off Tennessee’s seven turnovers. Somehow, it almost didn’t matter.
The Vols trimmed the lead to seven with a chance to make a stop and get the ball back late in the fourth quarter on third-and-short before Trevor Knight slipped through the line of scrimmage and absconded with what looked like a victory, via a 62-yard touchdown run with 3:22 remaining.
But what’s been lost in the more trivial conversation about how lucky Tennessee’s been all year is how resilient the Vols have been. Double-digit deficits don’t erase themselves via luck and luck alone.
Tennessee once again found another gear and made a miraculous comeback, running down sure touchdowns that would have sealed the game to force some luck of its own and march at will offensively. Tennessee persisted long enough to force the Aggies to finish them off. At the end of regulation, A&M still hadn’t closed the sale; a snap-hooked would-be winner from overwhelmed sophomore Daniel LaCamera sent the game to overtime.
However, overtime in college football is rarely about who gets lucky and who doesn’t. It’s about who makes a mistake first, and playing mistake-free football wasn’t Tennessee’s forte on Saturday.
A seventh and final turnover did in Tennessee and its 684 yards of total offense. A&M came away scathed but unbeaten.
For Tennessee, the conversation is about more than where it will predictably turn… to luck.
The true story of UT’s loss on Saturday is about the unevenness with which this team plays.
The Vols have a good football team. That’s something we should feel comfortable with after those five wins to open the season and the fact that they almost managed a win on the road against a Top-10 team despite seven turnovers. However, they have aspirations of being a great football team.
Somewhere between good and great (if they ever get there), they’re going to have to realize that they can’t wait until they face double-digit deficit to find themselves. That level of play has to be there more consistently, or what happens when you poke your head up out of the SEC East-shaped hole you’re living in is you get whacked by an Alabama- or Texas A&M-shaped mallet.
Despite the fact that they finally got a break when everybody tuned in late for the charge, luck wasn’t on Tennessee’s side against Texas A&M… but we knew that was coming eventually.
Unfortunately for Tennessee, it wasn’t quite prepared for it. Perhaps that’s what happens when a group of young athletes starts buying into the idea that it’s a team of destiny. Perhaps it’s far simpler than that.
Either way, the Vols have no time to be existential. Winning the SEC East, winning the SEC and whatever comes after that are still firmly within their grasp, and No. 1 Alabama comes to town next week.