Column: How Many “Wake-Up Calls” Do Vol Players Need?

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    Photo by Jake Nichols/RTI

    Saturday served as the latest gut-punch in what’s turned out to be a 10-round beatdown for Vol fans over the last decade. Tennessee — a team that used to be a premier program in college football — lost 38-30 to a Georgia State team that went 2-10 last season and has only been playing organized collegiate football since 2010. The Panthers have been an FBS program for all of seven years counting this 2019 season, and Tennessee was a last-second touchdown away from losing by two scores to them over the weekend.

    After Saturday’s result, fans were understandably either very irate or completely apathetic to what they just witnessed. For Tennessee’s players, the reactions were also somewhat mixed, but there was a common theme for the most part, and that centered around Saturday’s loss serving as a wake-up call for UT’s team to start the season.

    Redshirt senior linebacker Darrell Taylor has seen his fair share of disastrous performances at Tennessee. He was the chief voice among the group of Vols who spoke after the game when it came to talking about the Georgia State game needing to be a rallying point for the team.

    “I would say it’s an eye-opener. It makes us realize that no one is going to come out on the field and just give us the game,” Taylor said to the media after the game. “From offense to defense, I think we all have to play better. I think it’s a wake-up call that’s making us think that we have to play better, we have to come better, and we have to practice better. We’ve got to come harder in practice, we’ve got to get in the film room even more now just because of the way we played in our first game.

    “I definitely think it’s an eye-opener, and this will make us better in the future.”

    The question is, how many “wake-up calls” does this group of Vols need?

    Taylor has been part of Tennessee’s roster since 2015. He’s witnessed collapses against Oklahoma and Florida in 2015, the meltdown of the 2016 season, a historically bad season in 2017, and a multitude of blowouts and low points in 2018. Surely one of those experiences was a wake-up call for him before Saturday.

    But you don’t even need to look at someone as long in the tooth as Taylor to realize that Tennessee’s wake-up call for the vast majority of the roster should’ve come before Saturday’s embarrassment.

    Aside from the freshmen, two JUCO transfers, and both Power Five transfers (Aubrey Solomon, Deangelo Gibbs), Tennessee’s 2019 roster is mostly the same from 2018. With only a small handful of seniors graduating after last season and a few players transferring off the roster,  most of the Vols’ 2019 squad were together through the disappointing 2018 season that saw six of Tennessee’s seven losses come by multiple scores.

    If losing to Missouri for a second-straight year by a score of 50-17 or losing in a blowout against Vanderbilt to end the season weren’t wake-up calls, then why should Saturday be any different?

    Fans’ biggest gripe about Tennessee’s two huge losses to end last season was a seeming lack of effort and execution. The Vols were punched in the mouth early in those games, and the team responded poorly on both occasions. That response — or lack thereof — resulted in two catastrophic losses.

    Those two games were supposed to be “eye-openers” and “wake-up calls” for Tennessee heading into the offseason. Quarterback Jarrett Guarantano and several other players said as much after the Vanderbilt game and at the beginning of spring practices. Those two blowout losses were supposed to galvanize the team and serve as a catalyst for change.

    The message being preached by UT’s players at the time was, “If you’re not here to help your team and get better, then it’s time to look elsewhere.”

    Fans were hopeful that the ending to last season would help eradicate the toxic culture that had taken hold in 2016 and had the program in a vice grip when Pruitt took over. But if the beginning to the 2019 season is any indication, then that’s not the case at all, and the culture at Tennessee is still very much a work in progress.

    Maybe Saturday’s game will serve as a wake-up call for UT’s players. Maybe that kind of historic loss will be what finally causes the program to awaken from the deep slumber it’s been in for over a decade.

    Or maybe that loss is just a sign of things to come, and the 2019 season is going to be another montage of futility.

    Vol fans have been through enough over the last decade, and they don’t need the latter of those two scenarios coming true. One thing is for certain: Fans, media, and the team alike will know if Saturday’s loss really did open up Tennessee’s eyes when the team takes the field against BYU this upcoming weekend. If not then, then it will certainly be made known in a couple weeks when the team travels down to Gainesville.

    Tennessee’s players should’ve had plenty of eye-opening moments over the last year-plus. But maybe Saturday’s loss will finally be the alarm clock that’s loud enough to wake everyone up.