A harsh lesson is learned from the collapse of Tennessee football in South Carolina

We probably saw Tennessee football’s last orange helmets for a while.

These guys, walking around South Carolina on a nightmarish Saturday night, never really looked like the Vols. They certainly didn’t play like her either. At first glance at the uniforms and orange caps, you’d think Clemson. Except that the Tigers have won four straight games in Colombia.

Even if the Vols were to one day do the same under Josh Heupel, I don’t think it would assuage the memory of the night that dashed Tennessee’s 2022 College Football Playoff hopes with an equally stunning 63-38 loss in South Carolina were made like a football game can be.

That was the night that the Tennessee football renaissance made the painful realization that the higher a team climbs, the harder it can fall. If the lasting image were the heartbreaking one of Heisman quarterback hopeful Hendon Hooker lying in a field screaming in pain.

As the Gamecocks and their fans took to the field and celebrated like they’d just blown up college football’s best team.

Except they hadn’t beaten the best team in college football.

They had beaten the best offense in college football.

Never was that difference clearer than tonight, which exposed Tennessee’s defense as a deadly burden and was ultimately the reason why the Vols’ very good season will only just end up being great.

The lesson here is that even in a high-scoring era in college football, defense still matters. You have to be at least respectable on defense to win the biggest prizes. Check out who is number 1. Georgia had the best defense in the sport last year – and maybe this year too. The Bulldogs have not lost a regular-season game since 2020.

Meanwhile, one of the biggest misconceptions of Vols 2022 will be that anyone believed this defense was good enough – despite warning signs – to win a national championship. Florida gained 594 yards against Tennessee. Alabama had 569. Because of this, both the Gators and Crimson Tide were probably closer to winning at Neyland Stadium than they should have been.

Georgia’s win over Tennessee understandably coupled with the Bulldogs’ defense finally being the unit slowing down Heupel’s offense, but it overlooked the number of times Georgia’s receivers ran wide open in the first half before Kirby Smart stopped them after the half to air out.

Yes, Tennessee was outplayed defensively. It was also defensive at times. It’s lucky with sales. It was solid against the run.

And while you knew that defense was never elite, the hope in Knoxville was that Tennessee’s dynamite attack was elite enough for both.

It was not. South Carolina left no doubt.

The Gamecocks grabbed nine touchdowns on 10 full possessions en route to 606 offensive yards. Quarterback Spencer Rattler became Drew Brees and completed 30 of 37 for 438 yards and six TDs. The Vols secondary school was lost and wandered around all night.

College football teams have won big with big offenses and decent defense before, but Tennessee, completely wiped out by a rather foot-footed offense in South Carolina, defied all reasonable expectations for what we were about to witness on Saturday.

But it was such a Saturday, wasn’t it?

By midday, it was clear that this was going to be one of those absurdly wild college football days that happen once or twice a season, when predictions don’t matter, nothing makes sense, and no team is safe.

Total chaos, though near, was held up by TCU and Michigan, who ended up barely winning. Georgia survived Kentucky. Ohio State survived Maryland.

And Tennessee?

South Carolina was defeated 38-6 by Florida last week and was surpassed by nearly 300 yards by a Gators team that would later lose to … Vanderbilt. (Weird Saturday like I said)

Nothing against the gritty, improving Commodores, but the Vols had to appreciate their chances at Columbia even more when that happened. But even before that, the general question hadn’t been whether Tennessee would stumble against Missouri or South Carolina (or at Vandy next week). This is how the other dominoes could fall to take the 11-1 Vols to the playoff semifinals.

The win was an assumption for Tennessee.

I can tell you that the SEC will never be that easy to accept anything. That it has a way of weeding out and weeding out weaknesses. That there are all these potential pitfalls at places like Williams-Brice Stadium in South Carolina, which has long been a tougher place to play than it deserves.

But you already knew that.

So I’ll put it bluntly: Tennessee won’t win a national title under Heupel until they play better defense.

And it has to find a way to do that despite a fast-break offense that inherently penalizes defense and keeps them on the field for too long.

The Vols had so much going for them this season, but they never had the defense.

To take the next step, they need to find one.

Reach Tennessee sports columnist Gentry Estes at [email protected] and on Twitter @Gentry_Estes.