The Vols' offensive implosion started early. They advanced to a second-and-goal at Bama's 8-yard line late in the first quarter only to see Cordarrelle Patterson bobble a pitch, resulting in a six-yard loss that forced Tennessee to settle for a field goal and a 7-3 deficit. The Vols' next possession saw Tyler Bray hit Bama linebacker C.J. Mosley with a horrible pass at Tennessee's 32-yard line, setting up a short-field touchdown that widened the Tide's lead to 13-3.
Down 23-10 seconds shy of halftime, Bray threw a perfect bomb to Justin Hunter, who botched the catch on what would've been a 63-yard touchdown play. Going to the locker room down just 23-17 and coming off a big-play touchdown could've provided a tremendous emotional lift for the Vols. Tennessee blew another golden opportunity in the third period, advancing to a third-and-one at Bama's 33-yard line. Bray and his receiver got their wires crossed on third down, however, then A.J. Johnson was stopped cold on fourth down. Bama scored six plays later, and that 14-point swing turned a potential 23-17 deficit into a 30-10 deficit.
Tennessee still had time to get back in the game, marching to the Tide 21-yard line late in the third quarter. Pig Howard broke open in the end zone but Bray's pass was way late and intercepted. Bama scored six plays later, bumping the lead to 37-10 and turning the game into a blowout.
Bottom line: On a night when Tennessee's defense surrendered 539 yards and 44 points, the Vol offense may have played even worse.
Where the game was lost
Tennessee was horrendous on third down, offensively and defensively. The Vols converted just two of 13 third-down opportunities, while allowing the Tide to convert on six of 12. This enabled Bama to keep the ball 36:47 to Tennessee's 23:13. Overworked Vol defenders were gassed late, which helped the Tide pull away by scoring touchdowns on three of its final four possessions.
There's a reason coaches call third down "money down," and the Big Orange is never going to win a big game until it starts making some plays in clutch situations.
The big picture
At 3-4 overall and 0-4 in SEC play, Tennessee must lower its goals once again. Unless the Vols shock the world and upset South Carolina in Columbia, the best they can hope for is a 7-5 overall record, a 3-5 league mark and an in-state bowl bid (Music City or Liberty).
The key now is seeing if Derek Dooley can keep his team from throwing in the towel, as it did last year in a season-ending loss at Lexington.
Players of the game
Offense: Marlin Lane
With No. 1 tailback Rajion Neal sidelined, Lane made his first college start a good one, leading the Vols in both rushing yards (55) and receptions (5 for 48 yards). He hit holes hard and broke some tackles in perhaps his best performance as a Vol. He also looked very comfortable catching the ball, converting one swing pass into a 26-yard gain. Still, he said utilizing his receiving skills was not a big emphasis heading into the game.
"Not really," he said. "We were just going off what the defense was running. We made a couple of changes, and I went out there and ran my routes, got open and tried to get the ball."
Bama's top-ranked defense, Lane added, is so quick that holes are only open for a split second.
"Their defensive line sheds blocks and have a running back guessing," he said. "Their linebackers don't come downhill as fast; they sit back and try to read the guards. They're fast to the ball but I just had the mindset of not slowing down and hitting the line of scrimmage full-speed."
Defense: Justin Coleman
Like everyone else in Tennessee's secondary, the sophomore cornerback was scorched on a few of Bama's long pass plays. He was salty in run support, however, recording 13 tackles.
"Basically, I just wanted to win so bad," Coleman said. "I just had to run to the ball, try to make as many plays as I possibly could."
Basically, the Vol defense sold out to try and keep Bama's tailback tandem of Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon from running wild. As a result, Tide quarterback A.J. McCarron passed the Vols silly, completing 17 of 22 attempts for 306 yards and four touchdowns.
"We wanted to stop the run pretty bad," Coleman said. "We gave a lot of effort to the run and a little to the pass. We expected them to come at us and try to run the ball down our throat. They seen that we was basically stopping the run, so I guess they gave us a lot of play-action and tried to hit us over the top."
The Gamecocks, playing their eighth game in eight weeks, looked like a tired football team in Saturday's 44-11 loss at third-ranked Florida. Carolina carries a 6-2 record into this Saturday's game with Tennessee in Columbia.
Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier pulled starting quarterback Connor Shaw in the loss to Florida and replaced him with backup Dylan Thompson, who also struggled. Four fumbles, three of which the Gators recovered, doomed the Gamecocks.