First year Tennessee head coach Butch Jones was brought in this season to accomplish what former head coach Derek Dooley could not in his three years at the helm: win a big game.
Entering the game against No. 6 Georgia on Saturday, Tennessee had not beaten a ranked team since October 31, 2009 when they defeated No. 21 South Carolina. The Volunteers came within inches of beating the Bulldogs in overtime, but their heroic performance fell just short, as they lost 31-34.
If there was any time for Jones to get his team that signature win against a top-10 opponent, the game against Georgia was his prime opportunity. The Bulldogs suffered key injuries to running back Keith Marshall, who was starting in place of injured running back Todd Gurley, and receivers Justin Scott-Wesley and Michael Bennett.
With Georgia’s offense hurting, Tennessee had to take advantage of their offensive opportunities. And they did. Quarterback Justin Worley played a mistake-free game and allowed star running back Raijon Neal to carry the ball 28 times for 148 yards and two touchdowns. Even with Tenessee’s offense rolling, it wasn’t enough to keep Georgia from forcing overtime.
The Volunteers still had the opportunity in overtime to win it. Nearly everything was going in their favor. They had a healthy offense going up against a Georgia defense that yet again failed to make plays. And they had a sold-out Neyland Stadium crowd that was louder than it had been in years, begging their defense to step up and make a play against Georgia’s beat-up offense.
Everything was set in place for Tennessee to get their biggest win in recent memory and for Jones to get the huge win early in his career that Dooley could not get in three years as head coach.
But luck was not on the Volunteers side on Saturday. As sophomore wide receiver Alton Howard stretched towards the end zone to give the Volunteers a seven point lead in overtime, he let go of the ball too early and fumbled into the end zone, causing a touchback. This bad stroke of luck was all that was needed for the Bulldogs to escape a close one in Knoxville, and leave Jones still searching for that signature win to get Tennessee back to being a real threat in the Southeastern Conference.