When a Win Feel Like a Loss: Tennessee vs. UMass

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    Photo Credit: Will Boling/RTI

    The Vols have won some unimpressive contests under Butch Jones.

    Jones’ first year in 2013 saw Tennessee struggle to defeat South Alabama 31-24. But that game can be written off more than the others because of the sad state of affairs the Tennessee football program was in when Jones first took over.

    In 2014, the Vols looked less than stellar against Arkansas State in a 34-19 win, and they gutted out a win against SEC foe Vanderbilt 24-17 in the final game of the season to get bowl eligible. But at least the Vanderbilt game had something on the line for both teams, and it was an SEC game.

    The 2015 team went sleepwalking against North Texas late in the season en route to a 24-0 victory over the Mean Green. And that game was infamous for the official North Texas Twitter handle trolling Tennessee’s field conditions. But that’s about all that was memorable in that game.

    Tennessee also struggled to beat Missouri that season, 19-8. But, once again, that was an SEC game. And just like Vanderbilt in 2014, it was a road game too. Not an excuse per se, but it helps explain a little more the ugliness of those games.

    Last season, the Vols looked uninspired and lethargic against Ohio, but they managed to pull out a 28-19 victory against the Bobcats.

    All of those games were ugly. All of those games were unappealing. But none of those games even compare to what happened on Saturday.

    Yes, the Vols won against UMass. But the feeling after the game by Tennessee fans seemed to reflect those after a loss rather than a win. And that’s because the Vols played arguable the ugliest game of the Butch Jones era on Saturday.

    Tennessee struggled their way to a 17-13 win against UMass on Saturday. The 17 points were the fewest Tennessee had scored in a game since managing just 10 against Alabama last year, and it was the lowest total the Vols had put up in a non-conference game since they scored just 10 points against Oklahoma in 2014.

    But Oklahoma is at least a Power Five school. The last time the Vols scored that little against a non-Power Five school was in 2008 when Tennessee put up just seven points in a loss to Wyoming.

    The Vols lost to Wyoming with that kind of offensive output. Tennessee didn’t lose this Saturday, but you wouldn’t have known that from the atmosphere in Knoxville.

    Neyland Stadium was fairly empty at the beginning of the game. By the start of the second half, the crowd had dissipated significantly. And by the fourth quarter, the stadium was sparsely populated. And fans on social media were in just as sour of a mood as those who left Neyland Stadium early.

    UMass came into this game without a win in four games prior to their match-up with the Vols. Granted, the Minutemen hadn’t lost a game by more than 10 points on the season, but they were regarded as one of the worst FBS schools heading into the season and were still thought of as such heading into this game.

    The Minutemen were allowing 414.3 yards a game to opponents before they took on the Vols. Tennessee managed a mere 319 yards in the game, including an abysmal 58 yards in the second half. Tennessee’s offensive line struggled to block an out-matched UMass defensive front, neither quarterback looked sharp, and even John Kelly didn’t have his usual great performance. Kelly still broke several tackles and pulled off a few bigger runs, but the blocking up front did him no favors.

    Aside from a 66-yard reception from Brandon Johnson and a 27-yard run by Kelly, Tennessee’s offense struggled to rip off big plays against a UMass defense that had allowed the fourth-most plays of 20 or more yards in the entire FBS heading into this game.

    UMass had given up 23 plays of 20 or more yards in their first four games. The Vols managed just two such plays in the entire game.

    The Vols’ defense looked fine against UMass, but that’s what they were supposed to do against an out-matched, lower-tier FBS school. The defense did their job, racking up 12 tackles for loss and seven sacks while holding the Minutemen to just 281 yards of offense. But the offense didn’t repay them in kind.

    Tennessee won on Saturday against UMass. But this win felt like a loss in many ways, and it raises many questions about the Vols moving forward.

    If the Vols’ offensive line couldn’t block well against UMass, if the quarterbacks couldn’t make good decisions against UMass, and if the coaching staff couldn’t get their players in winning situations against UMass, how are the Vols supposed to succeed against the likes of Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, and even Kentucky in their next SEC games?

    The Vols need to do some soul searching this week as they prepare to take on Georgia. Because after a crushing loss to Florida and a win that felt more like a loss against UMass, many fans have lost confidence in this team and coaching staff. And this ugly win against UMass was just one more reason for them to feel that way.

    Nathanael Rutherford
    Nathanael Rutherford is the managing editor and social media manager for Rocky Top Insider. Nathanael graduated from the University of Tennessee and cultivated a passion for the Vols while growing up in Knoxville a mere 10 minutes from Neyland Stadium. He's been a part of the RTI team since November of 2015 and has been the editor of RTI since June of 2017. If he's not talking or writing about Tennessee athletics, he's probably talking about Star Wars.