Sometimes, a week of preparation can make a big difference for a football team.
Sometimes, the opponent can make even more difference.
It was difficult to read too much into Tennessee’s 59-3 win over ETSU on Saturday, even though the Vols looked better in every phase of the game than they looked in a 40-14 loss to West Virginia a week earlier.
Tennessee thoroughly dominated the Bucs, as Jeremy Pruitt picked up his first win as a head coach. UT fans were satisfied by the Vols’ performance, after their team jumped to a 38-0 halftime lead and cruised to the victory.
But Saturday’s game was little more than a glorified scrimmage in a gameday environment. ETSU is an FCS program, and it’s difficult for the very best FCS programs to compete against the very worst FBS Power 5 programs. And the Bucs aren’t one of the very best FCS programs. In just their third year since resurrecting their football program, the Bucs have yet to have a winning season. They compete in one of the FCS’s weaker conferences, the Southern Conference, and are projected to finish eighth out of nine teams in that league this season. They’re 1-14 away from Johnson City since restarting the football program. And one week before the trip to Knoxville they struggled to put away Mars Hill, a weak Division II program that was coming off a 3-7 season last year.
After the Vols’ lopsided loss to West Virginia, there were some who predicted a relatively close game against ETSU. One beat writer even predicted a 27-17 finish. That was never a reasonable prediction. In no world was UT only going to score 27 points on ETSU, in no world was ETSU going to score 17 points on Tennessee, and in no world was the final margin of victory going to be only 10 points.
That’s why it’s hard to draw too much from the things that went right for the Vols in Saturday’s win. In fact, there may have been more cause for concern. The first quarter was dreadful, with Tennessee scoring just three points on three offensive possessions. ETSU had more rushing yards than the Vols had — with zero. UT finished with minus-one yard on the ground as its offensive line once again performed dreadfully.
The offensive line did improve as the game progressed, but if that unit isn’t shored up quickly, Florida could have a field day when it visits Neyland Stadium on September 22.
Despite leading only 10-0 when lightning struck 20 minutes into Saturday’s game, the Vols returned from the locker room to score 28 points in 10 minutes, blowing the game open. Another running back emerged from the team’s stable of ballcarriers, as Jeremy Banks came into the game to score a couple of touchdowns. Jarrett Guarantano hit a couple of deep balls, and Keller Chryst looked like a serviceable second option at quarterback, completing all three of his pass attempts for 70 yards.
In the words of Tennessee’s No. 1 nemesis, Nick Saban, “It is what it is.” The Vols needed a good tune-up game, and they got it. They needed a win, and they got that, too. ETSU got a healthy paycheck, and a number of kids who played high school football in East Tennessee and grew up watching Tennessee play got the opportunity to play in Neyland Stadium. It was a win for everybody, but it wasn’t much in terms of a gauge for how the Vols are progressing.
This week’s visit from Texas-El Paso, the Vols’ final tune-up before a five-game gauntlet that includes games against Florida, at Georgia, at Auburn, Alabama and at South Carolina, will likewise not be a good indicator for where the program is headed. UTEP is arguably the worst FBS team in the country. The Miners have lost 17 consecutive games, have not won a game since November 2016, and gave up 52 points last week to UNLV. A week before that, UTEP suffered a humiliating, 30-10 loss to Northern Arizona, an FCS team that had a losing record last year.