Finally, there's the fact the Vols played a different game defensively in the second half although the adjustments they made appeared to be nominal? It's easy to say Auburn lost interest in scoring more touchdowns with a big lead, but the Tigers never removed their first team, even with a 24-point lead late in the four quarter. It seemed the Tigers' backs were running as hard as they did in the first half, but the Vols did a better job of controlling their gaps, getting leverage on the perimeter and swarming the ball.
Just a few thoughts as we attempt to dissect this defeat and forecast what the future might hold as Tennessee approaches the midseason mark of a campaign that has already produced a variety of surprises.
Here's the top to bottom defensive ratings for the Tennessee-Auburn game. Grades of 90-100 are regarded as championship quality. Grades of 80-89 equate to top 25 worthy, grades of 70-79 are winning marks. Grades of 60-69 are passing but problematical. Any grade below 60 is considered failing. (We have broken down the units this week to offense and defense.)
LINEBACKERS (55) Tennessee's linebackers were conspicuous by their absence around the football in the first half and around the quarterback on blitzes throughout the game. Vols played a vanilla package in hopes execution would improve by keeping it simple. Kevin Burnett recorded 12 tackles (seven solo) in another solid outing, Omar Gaither (five tackles) forced a fumble near the goal line and Jason Mitchell posted 10 stops (three solo) as he continues to adjust to playing in the middle. Lack of depth is an issue that was again underscored by lack of contributions from the reserves. Jon Poe was the only other LB on UT's roster who had a tackle (two). The loss of Kevin Simon has hurt UT physically, emotionally and strategically.
DEFENSIVE LINE (53) It was a tale of two halves for UT's down linemen who played much better in the second half than the first. Turk McBride, who had a career best six solo tackles with three assists, is a star in the making. Jesse Mahelona also had a career-best night with four primary stops and five assists. Justin Harrell had three stops in the game and Tony McDaniel had a pair. Parys Haralson contributed two tackles and two assists before being forced from action with an injury. The Vols have been unable to mount pressure with it's down four to this point, but the potential is there for a good D-line. Hopefully, time and experience will take care of their problems.
SPECIAL TEAMS (52) Maybe this score should be an incomplete since that's exactly what the Vols got from their kickers and return specialists. The normally flawless punting game was even affected when an Auburn overload led to a partially blocked punt on Dustin Colquitt's first effort. James Wilhoit hit his only field goal attempt from 41 yards and made a TD saving tackle on a short kickoff. He later felt pressure that resulted in a 30-yard punt. UT is getting nothing out of its kick returns and the same is true of punt returns. Has Cory Larkins ever brought a kickoff out beyond his own 20 yard-line? Wherever an opponent kicks the ball into the end zone against UT it's doing itself a disservice.
SECONDARY (47) Tennessee allowed Campbell to complete 12-of-15 passes in the first half alone. Furthermore safety Brandon Johnson dropped an interception that would have been an easy six points on Auburn's first possession. A score there could have flip the momentum of the entire game. Tackling was again suspect but Jason Allen did lead UT with 14 tackles including 10 solo stops. Johnson had six primary tackles and one assist. Auburn's game plan was to attack Tennessee's corners and it proved to be a sound approach. That will become a familiar refrain until Vols corners get up to speed. In fairness to the secondary, UT's front seven did very little to put pressure on the quarterback as Campbell had plenty of time to scan the field, set his feet and make the throw. If you allow a DPI QB to play pitch and catch defeat is a foregone conclusion.
OVERALL DEFENSE (49) Allowing 31 points in one half at home is not what supporters have come to expect from Tennessee, but the truth is the Vols have been beaten badly in five huge games at Neyland Stadium the last three seasons. In 2002, they lost to Florida 30-13, to Alabama 34-14, to Miami 26-3. In 2003, they lost to Georgia 42-14 and added a 24-point loss to Auburn on Saturday. That's hardly defending your home turf which is an anathema to any team with championship aspirations, and it's the quickest way to dispirit your fan base. Five setbacks at home by an average of 22.4 points over three seasons is a symptomatic of a program with a serious leadership crisis. The Vols have to base their success on defense. It is the bedrock of Tennessee football and until it is fully restored UT will be a team without a home.