The Tennessee Vols saw their playoff hopes disappear on a sandy field in Columbia on Saturday night.

Tennessee’s 63-38 loss to South Carolina essentially eliminated the Vols from College Football Playoff contention.

And to make matters worse, Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker suffered what appeared to be a potentially significant injury (perhaps because of the aforementioned sandy field). Non-contact knee injuries are always scary (there’s been no update on the severity).

The loss to South Carolina combined with Hooker’s knee injury made Saturday night one of the darkest nights in recent Tennessee football history. It’s been a special season for the Vols, but the 2022 season will always have a shadow over it because of the inexplicable loss to the Gamecocks.

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Nov 19, 2022; Columbia, South Carolina, USA; Tennessee Volunteers quarterback Hendon Hooker (5) passes against the South Carolina Gamecocks in the second quarter at Williams-Brice Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

In retrospect, this loss shouldn’t be completely shocking.

Tennessee hasn’t been the same since beating Kentucky and jumping to No. 1 in the College Football Playoff rankings.

Something flipped at that point for this team.

I think it’s because the Vols went from no expectations and just playing football to grandiose expectations and national championship chatter.

And they didn’t know how to handle it.

I don’t think that’s an indictment of anyone on the team or on the coaching staff. The truth is that no one on the Vols’ roster had been in that position before. And no one on the staff has really been in this position before either as a coach (Josh Heupel experienced it as a player, but this was his first time as a head coach in this position).

It’s important to remember that this program is still in the growing stage. That’s not to say that losing to South Carolina in that manner is excusable — it’s not. Tennessee absolutely should’ve won that game. And if the Vols we saw in Baton Rouge in October would’ve shown up for this game, I think the outcome would’ve been different (though I give credit to South Carolina, they executed and had a great game plan).

This loss, however, can be a positive moving forward. Tennessee hasn’t been in the national championship conversation since 2001. As a program, the Vols have to learn how to handle expectations and success. When there were no expectations, this team looked unbeatable. But once those expectations hit and the national championship talk started, the vibe around the team changed.

Heupel, his staff, and the players who will be back next season have to learn from this. They have to learn how to manage expectations and not let it impact their play on the field.

This is just the beginning of Tennessee’s journey under Heupel. And while fans should be disappointed that a golden opportunity passed the Vols by, they should also appreciate the fact that Heupel has taken this program to places it hasn’t been for 20 years. Both things can be true.

Featured image via Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports