Moving past a loss isn’t a first for Josh Heupel as head coach of Tennessee football. After all, the Vols lost five regular season games last year along.
However, the task is a lot tougher now. Coming off their 27-13 loss at the Georgia Bulldogs Saturday, the Vols may have been hit with a bit of a reality check.
Heupel’s task is refocusing them for their final three games of the season in spite of that check, the fact that the SEC Championship is nearly out of reach and the blow to Hendon Hooker’s Heisman odd. That started with practice on Monday..
“The energy in the building was good,” Heupel said in his Monday media session. “Were guys disappointed after the game? Yeah. If they weren’t, then we would have real issues.”
Even with those facts, though, Tennessee football is still in the running for a lot of things, most notably the College Football Playoff. That’s the ultimate goal for the Vols anyway.
With the Clemson Tigers losing to the Notre Dame Fighting Irish Saturday, the Vols’ playoff odds actually went up according to the ESPN FPI. They almost certainly still control their own destiny.
“There’s a whole month of football and there’s a lot of ball left to be played by everybody in the country,” Heupel said. “Up until this point, we’ve done a lot of things right.”
Also, technically, Hooker’s Heisman chances and the SEC Championship aren’t out of reach. Most betting markets, including DraftKings and FanDuel, still have Hooker only behind C.J. Stroud of the Ohio State Buckeyes in the race. One loss by Stroud would change that.
Meanwhile, although this is a long shot, there’s also still the outside possibility that UT reaches the SEC Championship game. Hey, Georgia still has to visit the Kentucky Wildcats and Mississippi State Bulldogs, and they’ve already played with fire in some games this year.
It’s obviously not likely that they lose either of those games, much less both, but anything is possible. Given everything in front of them, the Vols have to keep playing, but Heupel noted they need to focus on themselves.
“There’s nothing that we can control other than who we are, how we approach it and how we go play and compete,” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s about trying to find a way to be the best team on the field during the 60 minutes. That’s all we’re concerned about.”
Part of building that confidence back up, though, isn’t just noting that there’s a lot to play for. It’s pointing out that, in spite of Saturday’s loss that wasn’t as close as the score indicated, Tennessee football could’ve made it a game.
Hendon Hooker missed two deep balls that could’ve been touchdowns. Numerous false start penalties and breakdowns in protection killed drives in Georgia territory. Two of UGA’s scores were off designed routes that caused busted coverages.
Simply put, despite how dominant they were, the Vols had plenty of chances to make it a game. On a neutral field, if the ball bounces a certain way, that could help them.
“That’s a great thing about this sport is that, man, you only get one opportunity,” Heupel said. “You play it 10 times, it unfolds differently 10 times every time.”
A sense of urgency also comes with the need to focus. Say what you want about the Vols’ final three games, but their opponent this week, the Missouri Tigers, have yet to lose an SEC game by more than one score. A fluke play or call cost them against the Auburn Tigers, Georgia and Kentucky.
After Mizzou, Tennessee football has to visit the South Carolina Gamecocks. Shane Beamer’s team is 6-3 and was in the top 25 two Saturdays ago, so that’s not a cakewalk either.
Okay, the season finale at the Vanderbilt Commodores should be a cakewalk. But getting to that point and staying in the playoff race is still going to be a challenge for the Vols.
“For us, let’s go back and control what we can control, which is how we prepare, how we practice and how we go play this Saturday,” Heupel said. “As a competitor, you’re only as good as the next one.”