If you’re a top-10 team playing Appalachian State at home in your season-opener, that’s a game that you should not only win, but dominate.
Unless you’re Tennessee.
Indeed, the Volunteers escaped with a 20-13 overtime win over Appalachian State on Thursday night, leaving fans with far more questions than answers moving forward.
“I knew going in Tennessee would have to play to win the game,” USA Today college football reporter Dan Wolken said on CBS Sports Radio’s Tiki and Tierney. “Appalachian State is probably the best team in the Sun Belt, very good coach, and a team that will give people problems. Now I didn’t expect that they were going to be so good at the point of attack. I didn’t feel like Tennessee was really blocking their defensive line very well, so there were some things that I was surprised about. But I really did think that Tennessee would have to come to play – and they just didn’t for whatever reason. I think they’ll be better going forward. It obviously was not a good-looking performance or a win that they really deserved, to be honest, but they got it. I think they’ll be better. It does raise some questions that people should have had all along about Tennessee.”
Tennessee quarterback Joshua Dobbs completed 16-of-29 passes for 192 yards, one touchdown and one interception. He ran nine times for minus-4 yards.
“I like Joshua Dobbs. He’s a nice quarterback. He’s a good veteran,” Wolken prefaced. “But he is not – and has never been – the guy that the media has hyped up in the offseason. You talk to any coaches in the SEC and they will tell you he’s just a guy. He’s not very accurate.”
Looking ahead to this weekend, unranked Texas would love to start the year with a win over No. 10 Notre Dame, especially given that Charlie Strong is 11-14 through two seasons in Austin.
Do the Longhorns have a chance in this one, or is Notre Dame simply superior?
“I tend to think Notre Dame is superior,” Wolken said. “I think they have better players. I think they have more mature players. Most of Texas’ talent is younger, which I think does bode well for the future. But going into Year Three, he does need to show some signs of progress. The problem at Texas – and I started writing about this a year ago and it still concerns me for Charlie Strong – this is his third year and it’s going to be his fourth-different play-caller on offense. I don’t even know how many different philosophies they’ve sort of tried to implement. To me, Texas is one of those programs like Alabama, like USC, where you don’t need to play like Baylor. You can recruit the kind of players at Texas to play conventionally and win. And I still think in his heart of hearts, Charlie Strong knows that’s the best way to win a championship.
“The problem,” Wolken continued, “is he’s gotten behind the 8-ball with the fans and they’ve made this change on offense to try to go totally up-tempo. They hire an Art Briles protege (Sterlin Gilbert) to run the offense – a guy who has not actually called plays since he was a high school coach – and I don’t know if they have the right kind of talent to run that system here anyway. So I am a little worried for what Texas is going to look like offensively – just because I don’t think you change your philosophies three times in three years and have it end up in a good place.”
Texas went 30-21 in Mack Brown’s final four seasons – by contrast, Brown went 101-16 from 2001-2009 – and Strong was charged with rebuilding the program. So far, he hasn’t.
“Mack Brown let that program slip into a place where, for two straight years, the University of Texas did not have an NFL draft pick,” Wolken said. “That should not happen. So they have gone about recruiting the right way. I just don’t know going into Year Three how many games do they need to win to get people off his back? Is it eight? Is it nine? Can they win that many? I’m skeptical.”
As for the Heisman race, Wolken believes Christian McCaffrey is the favorite. Then again, he thought McCaffrey should have won it last year.
“A lot of people think that if he did not play games last year that started at 10 or 10:30 on the East Coast most of the time that he probably would have won it,” Wolken said. “If you talk to coaches across the country, if they were voting, they would pick McCaffrey because he is a one-man wrecking crew. He can do everything. I’m sure he’ll have another great year, but are people going to keep watching? And all these guys, their Heisman hopes are tied to team success in a significant way. Leonard Fournette last year, it was no coincidence that he went from a lock to win the Heisman to totally out of the picture when LSU started losing.”