KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee’s Neyland Stadium seats 102,455, but through a fourth quarter so bleak and barren Saturday, it seemed tumbleweed might blow across, the place looked four-fifths empty. Georgia got the ball with 2:53 left, leading 41-0, with any lingering Volunteers fans surely either numb, napping, kin to the players, imbued with herculean devotion or imbued with something else. One of them yelled to Georgia’s mop-up quarterback: “Eason, you suck!”
It sounded so helpless and so lonely that you might have wanted to cry.
LSU’s Tiger Stadium seats 102,321, and the school has alleged alleged for three decades that the booming crowd rattled the local seismograph in the geoscience complex one night against Auburn in 1988. But through a fourth quarter Saturday night so bleak and stunning, those mighty stands looked almost sullen in their vacancy. LSU trailed Troy by 17 points, and while the Tigers would score two touchdowns to end it at 24-21, it was clear that many Louisianians were too offended about having to rally from 24-7 against Troy to care about any potential rally from 24-7 against Troy.
It’s the emptiness that proved most striking Saturday in college football. It’s the woe of old kingdoms, always one of the sport’s most alluring spectacles. Two old kingdoms that aren’t kingdoms anymore endured the unthinkable, and prepared for long days ahead pillorying their coaches. It’s the fifth season at Tennessee for Butch Jones, and his 33-23 record just took on its clunkiest clunker. It’s the first at LSU for Louisiana native Ed Orgeron, who once went 10-25 at Ole Miss, and October hadn’t even begun before people decided a 37-7 loss to Mississippi State plus a loss to Troy equals inevitable doom already. September ended with Troy University of Troy, Ala., tweeting, “Hey @LSU, thanks for having us down for homecoming! We really enjoyed it!”
That’s some cold exclamation-point typing right there.
At one point Tennessee, the 1998 national champion with 11 10-win seasons between 1993 and 2007 but none since, had four turnovers and four first downs against Georgia. The fact it budged to get to seven first downs seemed a statistical outrage, a breach of poetry. To start the second quarter, down only 10-0, Tennessee got a hopeful interception, 27 yards from pay dirt that never would pay. Two plays later, it fumbled a snap to give it back. Later, Tennessee suffered a blocked punt of almost inconceivable origin: a line drive off the helmet of Georgia junior linebacker and special-teams man D’Andre Walker, that very rare player to block a punt with his head.
Still later, in the elevator lobby of the hollowed-out stadium, Jones’s voice rang out from his postgame radio show, and a coach often lampooned for his comments said: “We’re being tested right now. It’s like I told our football team, there’s absolutely no excuses. Our character, our competitive character, is being tested, and how do we respond? . . . We’ll find out who the leaders are, find out who the competitors are, and the only way I know how to do it is you go back to work.” Out there in the mist of the evening sat listeners surely wincing, wondering why the leaders and competitors hadn’t been identified already, tired of the voice in the way Southeastern Conference football fans grow tired of a voice that lost to Florida on an unguarded Hail Mary, lost to Georgia by 41-0 and allowed Georgia Tech an unsightly 535 rushing yards.
It had been the worst Tennessee home loss since 1905, a 45-0 loss to Vanderbilt, just two weeks after Tennessee had beaten American Temperance University, 104-0, and had proved there’s no place in college football for temperance.
At many points LSU, a 2003 and 2007 national champion and 2011 national runner-up that has lost nine times the last two-plus seasons with an offense usually unwatchable, looked as if it had not taken Troy seriously. Maybe it just assumed itself superior to a team that arrived in Baton Rouge by six-hour bus ride. No, definitely it just assumed itself superior to a six-hour-bus-ride team.
That must have been some six-hour bus ride back. LSU simply could not tackle Troy back Jordan Chunn, the 6-foot-1, 231-pounder with mammoth biceps. He rushed for 191 yards. Further, after a confusing ending to the first half with Troy ahead 7-0, and after the officials reviewed the ending, restored two seconds and brought the teams back out on the field, Troy’s Evan Legassey tried a 37-yard field goal. It dived down like an imperiled bird, plunked the crossbar and trickled over.
“We’ve got to find out why we’re not making the plays we’re supposed to make,” said Orgeron, who is listenable but getting less listenable for some.
Sure, there were other empty stadiums. Bryant-Denny Stadium (capacity 101,821) in Tuscaloosa, Ala., looked like it lost big chunks of its audience as a game waned Saturday night, but the departed had gone merrily as Alabama restated its intent to rain hell on anyone who dares cross it. Upon a 59-0 win over a trash-talking Vanderbilt the previous Saturday, it piled a 66-3 win over Ole Miss, which had beaten Alabama two out of the previous three and led it 24-3 the other time. In these two horror games, Alabama has made 64 first downs to 14 for Vanderbilt (three) and Ole Miss (11, most late and meaningless). And even at the passion pit of Virginia Tech, the upper decks looked largely emptied late Saturday night as the other of the two pillars of college football, Clemson, finished its visit.
By winning 31-17 and looking all-grown-up and profoundly competent, its defense a marvel of motion and pursuit, Clemson became the first team to beat three top-15 teams in a September, having weathered Auburn and caused emptying stadiums in Louisville and Blacksburg already. The new quarterback, South Carolinian Kelly Bryant, looks immediately superb, as if one could learn a lot studying for two years under previous starter Deshaun Watson.
Somehow, a big, cacophonous sport where Washington State beats No. 5 Southern California on Friday night, and Pullman goes wild and all of that, has come up with two mastodon programs: Clemson and Alabama, Alabama and Clemson. If they play a third straight national championship game come Jan. 8, it would be incredible, but it also looks plausible.
It’s also not assured, but what is assured is that final night won’t include Tennessee or LSU, which appear all set up for an autumn rich in angst and lament. Maybe the perfect image turned up on a sidewalk Saturday evening, where the streets had gone hushed, and a single orange-and-white pompom lay alone, discarded and exhausted, but not from much use.
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