Takeaways: What should Tennessee's punishment be for ugly scene in Knoxville?

As the dozens and dozens of items flew down onto the field — everything from water bottles to a mustard bottle to a yellow golf ball — Tennessee’s reputation as having the worst fan base in college football grew incrementally. As each item crashed to the turf, another piece of empirical evidence was added to a rich history of collective classlessness.

As the minutes ticked by and the hailstorm continued, Tennessee fans exhibited a level of fan misbehavior that we haven’t seen in college football this generation. We’ve never seen a recent scene in college football so unsafe that cheerleaders, the dance team and band had to leave their home field for protection, some shielding their heads with placards designed to cheer on the team.

A fan base with a vocal element that has always traded in the sewer of the sport somehow found a lower level. On a night when Tennessee football eventually lost to Ole Miss, its fans also found new depths.

In the wake of Ole Miss outlasting Tennessee in Lake Kiffin’s supercharged return to Neyland Stadium, the spectacle of a 20-minute delay from debris being thrown onto the field overshadowed a fantastic game. And it brought the focus of the sport to Tennessee’s fan base, whose last public riot resulted in VolTwitter choosing the most incompetent coach and athletic director pairing in the SEC this generation.

Where will Tennessee’s depths take them this time? That’s the conundrum facing Tennessee chancellor Donde Plowman and SEC commissioner Greg Sankey as they navigate potential punishments for this seminal moment of fan misbehavior.

For Plowman, she’s going to confront a most uncomfortable scenario for a leader, as her actions in the upcoming days will be remembered far longer than any dean she hires or new academic building erected on her watch.

Debris is seen on the field after fans threw objects onto the field during a game between Tennessee and Mississippi at Neyland Stadium. (Bryan Lynn-USA TODAY Sports)
Debris is seen on the field after fans threw objects onto the field during a game between Tennessee and Mississippi at Neyland Stadium. (Bryan Lynn-USA TODAY Sports)

Plowman needs to do something to prove to her peers in the SEC that Tennessee takes the most basic tenet of sport — player safety — seriously. And to do it, she’s going to have to endure the same caliber of vitriol that rained down on her own team, band and cheerleaders on Saturday night.

She’s going to have to punish the Tennessee fan base enough to make it uncomfortable, to make fans think twice about throwing things and endangering players, coaches and those cheerleaders. Tennessee is firmly lodged in the SEC’s behavior basement. And how punitive Plowman’s decision is — and Sankey’s, too — will show if there’s real interest in changing that reputation.

Plowman in particular is going to deal with the type of uncomfortable, unsettling and unhinged behavior that’s become synonymous with the fringes of Tennessee’s fan base. Shut off your mentions, Donde, this is going to be unpleasant.

Both the chancellor and SEC commissioner released post-midnight statements showing their disgust at the proceedings and hinting at severe punishment. Will their actions match their words?

The fan meltdown at Neyland Stadium turned into a touchstone moment for college sports, a nadir of fan behavior that promises to be the benchmark for unruliness for years to come. Think about it: The situation got so bad that Tennessee officials had to vacate their own cheerleaders from the field to protect them from the home fans throwing projectiles. All of this started with a controversial spot that went against Tennessee.

If there’s been a college football game delayed this long because of fan behavior in the last 20 years, this reporter sure doesn’t remember it.

Something punitive needs to happen. Tennessee embarrassed the entire state, SEC and sport on Saturday night, a 20-minute satire of the toxicity that’s personified Vol Nation’s fellowship of the miserable. Things got so bad that Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin told his team to put their helmets on to protect themselves. He held a yellow range golf ball that was thrown at him in the postgame interview, an eternal item and image that will represent for decades the depths of this dark night. Tennessee managed to turn Lane Kiffin into a sympathetic figure while winning in his return to Neyland Stadium — that’s a plot twist that no SEC fan fiction writer could have conjured.

Plowman indicated she’s taking things seriously, saying she’s “astonished and sickened” by the actions. “Behavior that puts student athletes, coaches, visitors and other fans at risk is not something we will tolerate.”

Here’s an idea. When Tennessee plays its next home game against Georgia on Nov. 13, the Vols should play in front of a stadium without any Vols fans. All ticket holders should be refunded. But more important, the significant advantage of playing a home game in front of a home crowd should be taken away. With those 90,000-plus voices silenced, the Vols will have little chance against the No. 1 Bulldogs. (Letting in 5,000 or so UGA fans — whatever their normal allotment is — would be a nice touch.)

It goes without saying that anyone caught tossing projectiles – both in real time or later on video – should have their tickets be revoked and be banned for an indefinite period. That’s the easy part, the tangible stuff.

So what will Tennessee actually do? The idiocy on display at Neyland Stadium on Saturday night calls for something drastic. It will take years for Tennessee to shake the stigma of having the sport’s worst fan culture. This wasn’t a one-night stand of lunacy for Tennessee’s fans, as the Schiano Sunday revolt showed. While surely all Tennessee fans weren’t throwing bottles on Saturday night — and a vast majority of Vol fans aren’t lunatics — there are clearly enough empowered to endanger the dance team. So something has to change.

Sankey released a statement at 1:29 am EST that called the Tennessee behavior “unacceptable under any circumstances.” He added that the SEC will be reviewing the policies and commissioner’s authority “to impose penalties.” His goal? “To make certain this situation is not repeated.”

A simple fine isn’t going to do anything for Tennessee. It’ll just be another drop in debt bucket next to the massive coaching buyouts and NCAA legal fees it has compiled in its debt ledger in recent years.

What happened at Tennessee on Saturday night should never happen again – either in the SEC or beyond in college football. It was unsafe, untoward and completely unnecessary. It was the actions of many who believed there’d be no consequences, and it’s up to Plowman and Sankey to remind everyone that consequences come with illicit behavior.

What unfolded was especially embarrassing to the thousands of classy and well-behaved Tennessee fans, who deserve to go root on their team without watching a crew of idiots take target practice at the players, Kiffin and the school’s own marching band. There are a lot of upstanding Tennessee fans who should be angry this morning, as they’re now labeled as part of the sport’s laughingstock.

Tennessee’s last momentous melodrama of fan outrage back in 2017 ended with Tennessee getting karmic punishment — the coaching of Jeremy Pruitt and the stewardship of Phil Fulmer, a duo so incompetent and bumbling that they’ll be the low parallel bars for SEC ineptitude for the next generation.

Along with the product on the field Tennessee fans had to endure during Pruitt’s tenure, the NCAA issues and legal bills will continue to haunt the school for much of the next decade.

This time, the damage can’t simply come in the drip, drip, drip of bad decisions and rooted in nostalgia instead of logic. This time, Tennessee administrators need to take a long look in the mirror and show that the school isn’t comfortable being the SEC's punchline.

It’s a shame that the progress of new coach Josh Heupel has been intercepted by Tennessee’s tortured soul. This hurts recruiting, hurts reputations and just reinforces the day-in and day-out dysfunction that Heupel and new AD Danny White have attempted to resolve.

Instead, it’s same-old Tennessee. And the world waits to see if a strong enough punishment will arrive to ensure the school doesn’t careen to these depths again.

Baylor's do-it-all star

Few players impacted winning for their team more that Baylor’s Dillon Doyle, a junior linebacker who moonlights as a fullback for the Bears. Doyle finished the game with two touchdowns — one receiving and one rushing — and 1.5 TFLs to help Baylor bully BYU, 38-24.

The touchdowns marked the first two of Doyle’s career. And despite being a New England Patriots fan, he’s too young to remember linebacker-turned-goal-line weapon Mike Vrabel scoring two Super Bowl touchdowns in his career. But Doyle was happy to chip in.

“It was cool,” Doyle said by phone on Saturday night. “I mean, I get that excited whenever anyone scores on the team. ... Anytime anyone gets in the end zone, it feels like a team touchdown. Everyone feeds from it. It’s a little bit more special when you are the one carrying the ball. But it’s a team thing. I want to put an emphasis on that.”

Doyle went on to credit Baylor quality control coach Tyler Bolfing for “teaching me the fullback position,” and admitted that “there’s not really time to be nervous” before hauling in the touchdown catch. If Doyle’s deferential nature makes him sound like a coach’s son, that’s because he is.

Baylor's Dillon Doyle celebrates after scoring a touchdown against Brigham Young in the first half on Saturday. (Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
Baylor's Dillon Doyle celebrates after scoring a touchdown against Brigham Young in the first half on Saturday. (Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

Doyle transferred to Baylor from Iowa after the 2019 season in the wake of the investigation into and later dismissal of his father, former Hawkeyes strength coach Chris Doyle. That situation prompted Doyle’s exit and impromptu transfer to Baylor, and Doyle got emotional talking about how much he’s cherished his time at Baylor.

“Baylor is the best thing that ever happen to me,” Doyle said, his voice cracking. “I want you to quote me saying that. I’m so thankful to coach [head coach Dave] Aranda and coach [Ron] Roberts and my teammates … [He named nine teammates.] … I could go down the list. It makes me emotional talking about those guys. I hope I show that with how hard I play every Saturday. I love those guys. It’s so fun to have the opportunity to make them proud.”

Doyle has served as a linchpin of the Bears authoring one of the most distinct turnarounds in college football. Baylor went 2-7 in 2020 in Aranda’s first season and is 6-1 this season. Baylor’s only loss is to Oklahoma State, which is 6-0 and inserted itself into the playoff conversation with a win at Texas.

Baylor committed no penalties against BYU, another example of Aranda's meticulous culture taking hold in Waco. He gave a vintage answer when asked about the lack of penalties: “Looking at sport as a way to master yourself, I think is the approach. And I think for any type of self-mastery, there has to be a craft that you work. I think the craft, especially the harder the craft brings out the mastery of self.”

For Doyle, both his crafts appear to be going just fine. With both Texas and Oklahoma coming to Waco in the next few weeks, he’ll have quite the stage to ply them.

Hoke-y dokey

Eleven teams entered Saturday undefeated, and few have flown under the radar more than San Diego State. In fact, they were on so late Friday night that they couldn’t even fly home after beating San Jose State in double-overtime, 19-13.

Aztecs coach Brady Hoke said by phone on Saturday that local regulations don’t allowing flights into San Diego past 10 p.m. He did report that his 89-year-old mother and 92-year-old father-in-law both stayed up to watch the game, which began at 10:30 EST.

Hoke has the Aztecs off to a 6-0 start, which makes him the first coach in college football history to take three different programs to 6-0 starts. And Hoke made clear to credit the turn from SDSU’s 4-4 slog through 2020 to the veteran players, including the eight Super Seniors who returned. “Last year was a little disappointing,” Hoke said. “Around here, 4-4 is not acceptable and they know that.”

San Diego State has announced itself as a Mountain West favorite with a familiar formula — a vexing 3-3-5 defense and a workmanlike offense predicated on physical superiority.

Hoke has been around long enough that he traveled with Rocky Long — the New Mexico DC and the modern 3-3-5 maestro — to Ole Miss in 1992. They were at Oregon State at the time, and that trip helped bring the defense out West and sprung a tree of successful disciples — New Mexico’s Danny Gonzales, Syracuse DC Tony White, Mississippi State DC Zach Arnett and SDSU’s Kurt Mattix.

San Diego State is No. 13 in total defense, led by linebacker Patrick McMorris’ 40 tackles and Cameron Thomas’ 10 TFLs. They have the country’s No. 3 rush defense, allowing just 61.2 yards per game. Hoke credited Long for keeping the culture he set during his first stint at SDSU from that started in 2009.

“The formula that’s been here, coach Long did a great job with continuing the culture and the character that we want to have, and the toughness as a football team,” Hoke said.

The Aztecs have beaten Arizona and Utah, but Hoke isn’t exactly lobbying for the College Football Playoff. He’s locked in on winning the Mountain West. “We’ll let the chips fall where they may,” Hoke said. “We just have to do our job.”

In a season where SDSU isn’t playing home games because its stadium is being build, the Aztecs have found comforts in the road. (They are playing their “home” games two hours away in Carson, California.)

“We don’t say much about it,” Hoke said. “Just get your mind right and let’s get it done.”