Lacking depth, particularly in the defensive front, the Vols wore down as the game moved into the final 20 minutes or so. Opponents then exploited this fatigue by piling up yards and points down the stretch.
The most dramatic example of this occurred at South Carolina. After gaining just 261 yards through the first three quarters, the Gamecocks racked up 174 yards in the final period. Marcus Lattimore was the primary culprit, gaining 82 of his 184 rushing yards in the fourth quarter.
The obvious solution would be to substitute freely in order to keep everyone fresh, especially in the front four. Defensive line coach Lance Thompson would love to do this but he won't insert a substitute until the substitute proves himself capable. That's why Tennessee's D-line depth may not be significantly better than it was a year ago.
"We've got a lot of young players on our side of the ball but they understand that they aren't going to get the opportunity to play until they show us we can trust them to play winning football," Thompson said. "You're just not going to throw people out there that can't get the job done. The key now is for them to develop to where they can play winning football on a consistent basis."
Teaching his troops to play "winning football" is keeping Thompson busy these days. Most of his young linemen have little or no experience at the college level, and it shows.
"We're working with them, emphasizing what they need to do to play winning football," the Vol aide said. "More than that, we're trying to teach them the intangibles in terms of effort and toughness. We're also trying to teach the value of better fundamentals in terms of pad level, recognizing blocks, getting off blocks, stuff like that. They've had a great attitude, they worked hard all summer and they're beginning to make progress."
Tennessee made a splash last February by signing celebrated Junior College All-America defensive tackle Maurice Couch, and Vol fans figured "Mo" would make a splash from Day One. The 6-2, 305-pounder is making steady progress but isn't ready to make anyone forget John Henderson or Albert Haynesworth just yet.
"Mo's been doing some good things," Thompson said. "People like to talk about a lot of kids and put expectations on them. I haven't done that with Mo. He's got a long way to go. It's a lot different going from junior college football to SEC football but he's doing some nice things."
Basically, Tennessee has an assortment of linemen who do one or two things well but very few guys who can play every down.
"We've got a lot of guys with different abilities," Thompson conceded, "so we'll play a bunch of guys in situational roles."
That could be a plus. Giving a bunch of players small roles keeps anyone from being on the field long enough to get exhausted.
"You want to keep them fresh but in our situation we've only got two guys who have contributed in meaningful games," Thompson said. "Ben (Martin) is coming back from surgery but we have to monitor his reps to be sure he's 100 percent before we cut him loose. Malik (Jackson) has been down with the injury."
To date, there's only one Vol lineman who appears dependable on a down-after-down basis.
"Jacques (Smith) has been steady," Thompson said. "Now we need the other guys to develop, as far as being consistent in their level of play."