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NO PLACE LIKE HOME: Tennessee's road struggles continue

By: Matthew Woods

Junior Staff Writer

The All Vol Call in Show


Photo of Neyland Stadium | Tennessee Athletics

A little more than two and a half seasons into Josh Heupel’s tenure as Tennessee’s football coach, the Volunteers have already accomplished so much more than what could have been expected of them when he took the job in January 2021. Through 33 games, Heupel

boasts a 23-10 record (12-8 in SEC) with signature wins over Florida, LSU, Alabama, and Clemson. Neyland Stadium is once again on the short list of the scariest places for a visiting team to try to win a football game, and Knoxville, Tennessee, is once again one of the premier destinations for recruits.

So many of the deficiencies that Volunteer fans had grown all too accustomed to their Vols displaying every Saturday in the fall have been rectified. However, there is one major hurdle that Heupel’s Volunteers have yet to get over, and they won’t return to truly elite status as

a football program until they are able to conquer it: the hostile road environment. The Volunteers’ inability to overcome the home team, its rabid fans, and that all

important “home-whistle” is proving to be a pattern. In fact, Tennessee has lost four of its last five road games dating back to last season with its only win in that span coming in “little Neyland” in Nashville against the Vanderbilt Commodores.

What truly separates good programs from elite ones is the ability to find a way to win in the face of adversity. That’s what Kirby Smart’s Bulldogs have done over and over again the past few years, and that’s what Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide did to the Volunteers on Saturday.

Down 20-7 at halftime in a game that Tennessee had thoroughly controlled for the first 30 minutes, Alabama landed its first major counterpunch of the game less than a minute into the third quarter with a two play touchdown drive. This was followed by an eyebrow raising penalty on the ensuing kickoff against Tennessee return specialist Dee Williams that left the Vols with

starting field position at the four yard line.

Facing its first bit of adversity with the crowd inside Bryant-Denny at full song, Tennessee’s playcallers folded. Seemingly scared to let Joe Milton, whose first half was

arguably his best as a Volunteer, throw the football from the endzone, the Vols dialed up three consecutive run plays that resulted in a three-and-out and a punt. By this point, the momentum was completely on the side of the Crimson Tide, and they would not relinquish it for the rest of the game.

Throughout the second half, Tennessee couldn’t get in any sort of rhythm on offense, and they couldn’t get off the field on third down on defense. Combine those shortcomings with a referee crew that threw just one flag on Alabama the entire game yet seemed eager to find anything to penalize the Vols for, and you have a recipe for an all-time second half collapse. Tennessee would fail to score a single point after halftime while giving up 27 to the Tide.

Ultimately, Tennessee didn’t lose on Saturday because they were out-manned (not counting the referees, of course). As a matter of fact, I watched in awe during the first half at just how well Tennessee matched up everywhere on the field. They lost the game because they couldn’t regain their composure after a few plays and more than a few calls didn’t go their way, something that they seem to do every time they go on the road.

Sure, there have been some good road wins in Heupel’s tenure, beating Kentucky in Lexington in ‘21 and LSU in Baton Rouge last season. But Kroger Field is not The Swamp the same way that Tiger Stadium at 11 in the morning is not really the Death Valley that it turns into when the sun goes down.

There’s a reason you heard Nick Saban imploring the Crimson Tide fans to show up and show out in the lead up to this game much like Kirby Smart did when the Vols were traveling to Athens last season. The Tennessee Volunteers under Josh Heupel have a reputation as a team that doesn’t travel well, and they’ve earned it. If Heupel can eventually find a way to get a full 60

minutes out of his team in a truly elite road environment, it may be the last piece of the puzzle. If

he can’t, Tennessee will remain in the “good, not great” class of college football.


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