Fifteen seconds remain on the clock in the 4th quarter. Tennessee trails South Carolina 42-35. UT was behind 42-28 with 2:04 left and after a few awe-inspiring plays and rock-solid defense, the Vols have a chance to do what seemed impossible just minutes earlier.
The Vols snap the ball from South Carolina’s 9-yard line. Joshua Dobbs rolls out to the right, the Gamecocks blitz and the pocket collapses but Dobbs gets free and tosses ball calmly to Jason Croom who makes the catch at the goal line and walks into the end zone to tie the game. The small section of fans in Williams-Brice Stadium dressed in orange and white go crazy hugging and high-fiving after the unbelievable comeback they have just witnessed. Gamecock fans sit stunned in silence after watching a game their team had firmly in its grasp, slip away in a little more than two minutes.
As we all know now, Tennessee would go on to win in overtime 45-42 with some help from a field goal and a relentless defense.
But, what if that pass was never made? What if Dobbs rolled out and threw a bad pass or didn’t see Croom standing wide open at the goal line? What if they whiffed on their final two attempts and South Carolina walked away with a narrow victory?
The entire outlook of Tennessee football would be different if the Vols left Columbia, SC with a loss on November 1st, 2014.
Let’s say Tennessee did lose to the Gamecocks and everything else for the remainder of the season played out the same. The Vols annihilate Kentucky, lose to Missouri, and beat Vanderbilt finishing the regular season at 5-7.
We’ll start with the most obvious difference, there would have been no bowl game. If there’s no bowl game, there’s no blowout win against Iowa. The hype around Josh Dobbs, and the hype around this team in a general sense would be basically non-existent. There would be no top 25 preseason ranking, things would feel eerily similar to the past five years.
Recruits like 4-star offensive tackle Drew Richmond, whose recruitment was highly contested until signing day, may have chosen to take their talents elsewhere. Former offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian might not have been offered a job with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers if Tennessee had a less successful season and Mike DeBord would not have been hired. Whether the outcome of that change will be beneficial for the Vols or not is yet to be seen.
The repercussions of a loss to South Carolina are enormous. The victory was a catalyst for all of the excitement about the potential triumphant return of the Tennessee Volunteers to the national spotlight. It was a confidence builder and complete game changer, not to mention it was a totally improbable win.
With 2:42 left in the game, down by 14 points, Tennessee had a 0.9% chance of coming away with a victory. The Vols overcame the odds to do the improbable.
The Vols are currently playing on bought time because they should not have won that night in Columbia. But they did, and that’s all that counts. Tennessee must now prove their dominating wins over Kentucky and Iowa weren’t just a flash in the pan, they must prove they are true contenders in the SEC East, they must prove the hype is real.
Maybe it would have been better if the Vols lost to the Gamecocks. Expectations would be lower and the roster would still be virtually the same. But there’s no point in second guessing now. What’s done is done and the win at South Carolina sent Tennessee’s hype train barreling out of the station at 200 mph.
We will know by week 2 when UT takes on Oklahoma, whether Team 119 is the real deal or not. Even if the hype train comes off the rails in 2015 and Vol fans are left yet again to comfort themselves with the familiar phrase “next year will be the year,” just remember all the expectations started with a pass from the 9-yard line with 0:15 seconds left on the clock in Columbia, SC.