Clay Travis’ Starting 11: Tennessee Posts Choke Job for the Ages Edition

I went to bed angry and I woke up angrier.

That’s never a good combination.

Tennessee posted the worst performance a 21+ point college football favorite has posted in nearly 25 years and got absolutely destroyed and humiliated in South Carolina last night. The Gamecocks, who scored six points last week against Florida, ten points against Mizzou, and seven points against Georgia, put up 63 points against Tennessee. Credit to Shane Beamer and Spencer Rattler for the win, but as good as they were, this was an epic choke job by Tennessee’s defense the likes of which we haven’t seen in a very long time. It may have been, honestly, given the stakes and the opponent the worst Tennessee defensive performance of my life.

And I watched the Sal Sunseri defense.

If you gave me one week to study and I’d been calling plays as Tennessee’s defensive coordinator, I don’t think I could have performed any worse than the actual defensive coordinator, Tim Banks, did. I have no idea what his scheme was or what the game plan was either. I’ve never seen bigger cushions on third down and I’ve also never seen so much trash talk from a team getting its ass kicked either. How do you talk trash when you push someone out of bounds after they get a first down? I’ve never seen anything like it. Just flat out embarrassing on all accounts.

I’ll write more about this below since Tennessee’s loss was the most significant outcome in the college football playoff picture, but suffice it to say that give the stakes this was definitely the worst loss for Tennessee football since 2001 in the SEC championship game against LSU. That loss to LSU cost the Vols a chance to play for the national championship in 2001 against Miami and this loss to South Carolina likely cost the Vols a playoff berth since the 11-1 Vols would have been very likely in as a three or four seed pending the remaining games.

South Carolina ruined Tennessee’s playoff hopes. (Photo by Austin McAfee/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images).

And for those who think I’m overreacting on the morning after a game, ESPN’s Chris Fallica pointed out that Tennessee’s 25 point loss as a 22.5 point favorite is the third largest margin loss by a favorite of this size in the past 23 years of college football. Only Arizona State in 1999 to New Mexico State and Bowling Green to Western Michigan is worse in the past 23 years. This was a generational choke job and ass whipping combo by South Carolina.

Okay, on to the playoff picture.

1. TCU survived at Baylor.

The Horned Frogs drilled a field goal — with a running clock! — on the final play of the game after inexplicable play calling — you run on first down, spike the football on second down, and then run again on third down?! — nearly cost TCU a field goal chance.

Honestly, I think Baylor was too well coached here.

Because the referee has to stop a team from snapping to allow the opposing team time to substitute. I think if Baylor hadn’t been so fast to get their kick team on the field then the clock would have run out before TCU had kicked. Why should Baylor have to rush its kick team out too? They aren’t the ones who screwed up here.

But thanks to the win TCU now needs to beat Iowa State at home and then (probably) Kansas State in the Big 12 title game and they are headed to the playoff. It’s also possible that even with a loss TCU will make the playoff too. I’ll discuss that below in more detail, but suffice it to say that if TCU beats Iowa State they will be in fantastic playoff shape.

A last-second field goal has TCU in the driver’s seat. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images).

2. Michigan and Ohio State both won despite playing less than stellar and now both teams have a decent shot to make the playoff.

Tennessee’s epic choke job has opened the door to two Big Ten teams in the playoff.

How so?

Well, we know the Ohio State and Michigan winner is in, probably as the two seed if Georgia keeps winning and the Ohio State/Michigan winner goes on to win the Big Ten title. The Michigan/Ohio State loser will be 11-1 and that 11-1 resume will likely look very strong as a playoff selection depending on what happens in the final two weeks.

There’s a very real chance, for instance, that you could have Georgia, Ohio State/Michigan winner, TCU or USC, and the Ohio State/Michigan loser.

Again, there’s a ton that can still happen, but the loser of Ohio State/Michigan will be in the clubhouse with an 11-1 record posted and have a decent shot of making the playoff.

The Michigan Wolverines survived a Saturday scare from Illinois. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images).

3. USC is in the playoff mix in a big way.

In fact, if the Trojans beat Notre Dame and then (likely) Oregon in the Pac 12 title game I don’t see how USC is left out of the playoff.

A 12-1 USC is, quite simply, a guaranteed playoff team now.

And, by the way, how incredible was that USC-UCLA game last night? Just an absolutely riveting game for all sixty minutes.

4. Clemson is also still alive for the playoff as a result of the Tennessee choke job.

I think 12-1 Clemson would have been behind 11-1 Tennessee and TCU and USC. But if either TCU or USC loses and Clemson finishes 12-1, I think the Tigers, even with the crushing loss to Notre Dame, will be in the playoff.

Yes, North Carolina lost, which will hurt some, but South Carolina’s crushing over Tennessee means that win would actually look decent for Clemson now and then the ACC title game win, assuming it happened, coupled with a TCU or USC loss, would put the Tigers, I believe, in the playoff.

Clemson is 8-0 in the ACC. (Photo by John Byrum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images).

5. Georgia is officially in the playoff with a win over Georgia Tech on Saturday.

Presuming the Bulldogs win that game then what happens against LSU in the SEC championship game is only about seeding for Georgia.

Win against Georgia Tech and the SEC title game and Georgia will be the 13-0 number one seed.

Lose and LSU will vault itself into discussion as the top two loss team. But, honestly, it looks like there are going to be so many one loss teams that the Tigers may have a difficult time fighting their way back into contention even if they win the SEC title.

I think Tennessee’s loss ended the SEC’s chances, to a large extent, of getting two teams in the playoff.

6. So what’s our playoff picture look like right now?

The most likely outcome is something akin to this: 1. Georgia 2. Ohio State 3. TCU 4. USC or Clemson conference champ

But right now it looks like there will be several teams contending for the final two spots. Figure that the SEC and Big Ten are taking two spots, with Georgia and whichever team wins the Michigan-Ohio State game penciled in to the playoff.

Then you’ve got these remaining contenders for the final two spots: 11-0 TCU, 10-1 USC, 10-1 Clemson, 11-1 Michigan or Ohio State loser, 9-2 LSU.

The Michigan or Ohio State loser will enter the clubhouse 11-1 as the top ranked one loss team. Then we’ll see what happens in conference title game weekend to solidify things.

But this is essentially a seven team title race at this point.

This morning’s national title odds reflect this to a large extent:

Georgia -140
Ohio State +250
Michigan +1200
TCU +1400
Clemson +2000
USC +2500
LSU +4000
Oregon +5500

These are the only eight teams with title odds up.

Oregon beat 10th-ranked Utah on Saturday night. (Photo by Brian Murphy/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images).

7. Okay, so what’s the chaos theory?

No one loves chaos theories more than college football fans.

The SEC champ and the Ohio State-Michigan winner are in the playoff. That leaves two spots. Let’s say everyone pulls Tennessee choke jobs and knocks themselves out of playoff competition. That would require USC to lose to Notre Dame and lose in the Pac 12 title game, Clemson would need to lose to South Carolina or in the ACC title game, TCU would need to lose to Iowa State and lose in the Big 12 title game, Georgia would need to lose to Georgia Tech and then lose the SEC title game, then you could end up with a two loss team in the mix as an at-large pick.

But your top three would be SEC championship winner, Ohio State/Michigan winner, loser of Ohio State/Michigan which would be 11-1, and then a two loss selection from the title game mix here. That could be two loss Pac 12 champ Oregon, two loss ACC champ UNC, two loss Big 12 champ Kansas State, the fourth team would not have an impressive resume at all.

So there’s your chaos theory.

8. South Carolina smoked Tennessee last night.

Credit to Shane Beamer and Spencer Rattler for the beat down, but some of the stats from this game are truly unbelievable.

For instance, South Carolina had only scored 18 touchdowns in the SEC all year coming in to this finale. They posted nine touchdowns on Tennessee.


Tennessee’s defense was clearly flawed, but the Vols defense hadn’t given up more than 42 points all season and that came against Alabama and Bryce Young. (Seven of the Alabama points in that game were a scoop and score fumble.) Other than Bama’s 42, the Vols hadn’t given up more than 33 and those points came in the frenzied and wild ending against Florida when Tennessee had a double digit lead.

I watch college football all the time, what happened last night was a generational level upset based on the gambling odds. Again, not just based on the Gamecocks win, but based on the margin of that win. A 23 point favorite at kickoff lost by 25. That’s a 48 point swing vs the expected Vegas outcome. This happens once every generation or so. Tennessee’s loss, and the margin by which it happened, was virtually unprecedented.

Tennessee entered Saturday’s game with South Carolina favored by more than 3 touchdowns. (Photo by Austin McAfee/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images).

Which is why I don’t know what Josh Heupel does after this loss.

I think there’s a decent chance Tennessee loses to Vanderbilt — the Commodores have won two games in a row suddenly and are going to care way more about Saturday’s game than most of Tennessee’s team is — and regardless of the outcome a 10-2 season or a 9-3 year would have sounded great to Vol fans before the season started.

But this South Carolina choke job was so epic and the loss was such an asskicking that I think it overshadows the Florida and Alabama wins. And let me just say this too, beating Florida and Alabama is great, but it’s what beating those teams allows you to do that matters. Tennessee hasn’t beaten Florida and Alabama in the same year since 2004. It’s just not going to happen very often. All Tennessee had to do was beat South Carolina and Vanderbilt and a four team playoff spot was probably there for the taking. (It’s also possible Tennessee would have gotten left out at the five spot because TCU and USC kept winning, but that’s life.)

Instead I don’t know how you return with this entire defensive coaching staff next year.

I really don’t.

I don’t want to be a prisoner of the moment and you want to evaluate the entire season as a whole, but this defensive meltdown was so bad I think Josh Heupel has to reconsider all of his choices on that side of the ball. You just can’t allow this kind of defensive performance to happen ever again.

Not against a team like South Carolina.

If the Vols had given up 63 to Ohio State in the playoff, okay, that sucks, but you’re in the playoff at least and the Buckeyes have an elite offense. But this performance? Flat out unacceptable. Given the stakes and the circumstances, I think you can argue it’s the single worst Tennessee defensive performance of my life.

And, again, I don’t think that’s hyperbole.

It was a generational level all systems meltdown at the least opportune time imaginable. And there have to be consequences for that. The only legit positive from the game was Tennessee is now highly ranked enough that when a team beats them they storm the field. Which hadn’t happened in like twenty years.

Final thought on the Vols 2022 campaign: Joe Milton is the presumptive starter in 2023 and he’s going to post some gaudy numbers, at times, but he’s also going to potentially murder anyone sitting in the first few rows of the end zone in Neyland Stadium. I have never seen a college quarterback throw heat seeking missiles into the stands as often as he does. You better keep your head on a swivel down there or you might end up in concussion protocol.

South Carolina fans stormed the field after pulling off the upset. (Photo by Austin McAfee/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images).

9. The Heisman race is down to C.J. Stroud or Caleb Williams.

Whichever player has the better conclusion on the big stages of competition wins the award.

And, by the way, I hope Hendon Hooker recovers from what looked like a devastating knee injury in the fourth quarter last night.

When Hooker started play on Saturday night he looked likely to get an invite to the Heisman ceremony and was poised to lead an 11-1 team to the playoff.

When he hobbled off the field Saturday night, he was facing a serious knee injury and had likely played his final snap as a Vol in the midst of a generational shellacking. Just a brutal turn of events for him. I hope he is well enough to perform for NFL teams because he’s been an incredible find for Tennessee.

Now if only he could have played corner too.

Ohio State Quarterback CJ Stroud
C.J. Stroud appears to be the Heisman favorite. (Photo by Ben Jackson/Getty Images).

10. My OutKick National Top Ten

1. Georgia
2. Ohio State
3. TCU
4. Michigan
5. USC
6. LSU
7. Alabama
8. Clemson
9. Penn State
10. Oregon

11. My SEC power rankings 1-14

These are all a mess now.

Last week we had a solid top five and then Tennessee and Ole Miss went on the road and got whipped. So this is my current best guess. But as you can see, it’s all a mess.

1. Georgia
2. LSU
3. Alabama
4. Tennessee
5. Ole Miss
6. South Carolina
7. Mississippi State
8. Arkansas
9. Vanderbilt
10. Florida
11. Kentucky
12. Missouri
13. Auburn
14. Texas A&M

Written by Clay Travis

OutKick founder, host and author. He's presently banned from appearing on both CNN and ESPN because he’s too honest for both.


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  1. “How do you talk trash when you push someone out of bounds after they get a first down? I’ve never seen anything like it. Just flat out embarrassing on all accounts.”

    That’s my big issue with this current generation of athletes. I see it all the time and it’s dumbfounding to me as well. How is it grounds to flex, or chirp or yell at the closest TV camera when you pop the snot out of a guy…when he’s 15 yards past the FD marker? Insane psychosis. Or how about the big flexing after stopping a guy on first down when he gained 9 yards? Bro, you’re gonna give up the first down on the next play, calm down.

  2. Clay,
    You know that S Carolina is called “The Gamecocks”. Well, I trust you’ve heard the story of the three legged chickens. It’s the only explanation.
    I’ve written a program (in JAVA) that does a statistical analysis of team scoring versus mutual opponents and opponent-of-opponents. Just scoring, nothing else. I can run average scoring for any grouping of teams, like conferences. Here’s what it shows for your OutKick Top Ten:
    OutKick ScoreStat Rank
    Current Date: 2022-11-19
    Team Pt Factor
    1 Ohio St – 38.76
    2 Georgia – 38.29
    3 Alabama – 36.58
    4 USC – 36.33
    5 Penn St – 36.27
    6 Michigan – 35.11
    7 TCU – 31.57
    8 Oregon – 31.55
    9 Clemson – 27.56
    10 LSU – 25.14

    Also, here’s how the SEC ranks (for scoring):
    SEC Football
    Current Date: 2022-11-19
    Team Pt Factor
    1 Tennessee – 40.28
    2 Alabama – 38.34
    3 Georgia – 37.09
    4 Mississippi – 32.29
    5 Arkansas – 30.67
    6 Florida – 29.17
    7 South Carolina – 25.96
    8 Mississippi St – 25.36
    9 Texas A&M – 22.27
    10 Auburn – 21.51
    11 Missouri – 19.97
    12 Vanderbilt – 19.23
    13 Kentucky – 18.58

    Anyway, I’ll be listening anxiously Monday to hear you.

    A WROK 1440 listener.

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