The day started with a Vol Navy boat catching fire and sinking into the Tennessee River before sunrise.
People joked it may be a sign of things to come for the Tennessee football team.
Little did they know.
Thoroughly outplayed in every facet of the game, the Vols opened the season with one of the worst losses in program history.
A Georgia State team that finished 2-10 last year and was a 26-point underdog showed no intimidation and pushed Tennessee around in a 38-30 victory at Neyland Stadium that could have been worse if not for a UT touchdown in the final seconds.
Tennessee paid Georgia State $950,000 to play, and the Panthers left with the money, a milestone win and invaluable national attention.
The victory was Georgia State’s first over a Power Five conference team in the program’s 10-year existence. In stark contrast, the loss was Tennessee’s first to a non-Power Five opponent since 2008 against Wyoming.
“To me, the best team out there won the game today,” Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt said after opening his second season with a nightmare result. “The team that played the best, executed the best, out-coached us. It starts with that. Let’s start there.”
The victory was not a fluke. Georgia State thoroughly outplayed the Vols in every facet of the game, and ran away from Tennessee in the second half.
The Panthers marched down the field with ease, rarely encountering much resistance when they needed a first down.
Tennessee’s offense largely sputtered. The Vols created a few big plays, but never sustained anything long enough to warrant much optimism.
Georgia State manhandled Tennessee in the trenches, something Panthers head coach Shawn Elliott largely expected after viewing game film of the Vols.
“It may be one of the glaring flaws to some degree for Tennessee. I didn’t know because I watched last season, but there were some things I felt like we could control,” Elliott said. “Not that we were going to dominate the line of scrimmage by any stretch, but I thought we had the quickness in our defensive line to give their offensive line some problems, and I thought we could push them a little bit with our offensive line.”
Making the loss even worse for Tennessee was the apathy from the fan base. The student section was nearly empty by the start of the third quarter, and large pockets of vacant seats dotted the stadium.
Some of it had to do with the searing heat, but much of it had to do with the product on the field. Fans hoping to see signs of progress in Year 2 under Pruitt and his revamped multi-million- dollar coaching staff only saw signs of regression.
They booed at points, but many fell silent in resignation. In the final minute, one fan yelled, “Let’s play for pride,” a statement that seemed a bit surreal considering the opponent was Georgia State and not the University of Georgia or Alabama.
“I hope they are disappointed because I know everybody in this building is disappointed,” Pruitt said of the fans. “For us, we’ve got to go back and go to work. We’ve got to go back and practice the right way, work on creating the right habits. I’ll say it again. We’re young and inexperienced and we’ve got to continue to grow.”
The Tennessee players tried to explain the underwhelming performance after months of waiting to kick off the season.
“I’ve got one word: I can just say flabbergasted. After today, just flabbergasted, man,” Tennessee safety Nigel Warrior said.
“I’m disgusted, to be honest,” added Tennessee redshirt junior quarterback Jarrett Guarantano. “I’m not going to sugarcoat this. I’m really upset right now, and I’m pissed and all those types of things.”
Pruitt kept his composure while discussing the loss in the immediate aftermath. He cited unforced errors, inexperience and a break down in fundamentals as the main culprits for UT’s poor play.
“We didn’t execute like we needed to. The other thing is, you have to go back and look in the mirror. What can I do better? That is what you have to do because everybody wants to blame somebody else,” Pruitt said. “It is like what I told them, last year at this time, we lost to West Virginia. I asked them, ‘Do you get extra scholarship money because we lose to West Virginia and Georgia State?’ Georgia State has scholarship guys just like us.”
The Vols still have nearly an entire season to play, but will need major improvements across the board to generate much enthusiasm.
Tennessee’s first chance at some redemption comes Saturday night against BYU (0-1). This would have been a glamour matchup many years ago, but both tradition-rich national championship programs have fallen on hard times.
Both are searching for answers and desperately need a victory to salvage some goodwill and boost their confidence.
“It’s a new week, and we want to go 1-0 every week,” Guarantano said. “And going into BYU, we know we have a tough opponent, and we’ve just got to really go clear the slate clean and go into next week and try to get a win.”