Riley Blevins' thoughts
At first, Justin Worley showed flashes.
Brief, yet honest flashes.
Worley was 15 of 22 for 150 yards, paired with two touchdowns and two interceptions in the first half.
A solid outing. Not great, not bad. It was acceptable.
Then the second half struck.
There were glaring mistakes and a lull in his performance. It was a nightmare.
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But the Vols will take the win. They'll also take Worley's performance. They don't have a choice. It's an unfortunate reality.
Worley's best toss of the afternoon came when he found freshman Josh Smith streaking down the sideline for a 29-yard touchdown with 13:16 remaining in the first quarter.
On the other hand, the running game was nothing but solid. Tennessee rushers totaled 278 yards.
Marlin Lane started the show with a 54-yard scamper in the first quarter. Rajion Neal tried his best to steal the show with a 53-yard run of his own in the second. The last time Tennessee had two rushes of more than 50 yards in the game was in 2004 when Cedric Houston did it against South Carolina.
Tennessee head coach Butch Jones keeps searching for "playmakers." Guys who can turn a 3-yard gain into 20 yards. Guys who can generate "splash plays." The running backs answered that call. Neal set a new career record for yards in a game with 169.
Neal and Lane churned their legs, squeezed in and out of holes and turned pedestrian runs into big gains again and again. It's a promising sign for the Vols. It's no secret they're predicated on the running game.
Turnovers and special teams mistakes didn't help Tennessee's defense. South Alabama's scramblers were relatively held in check, but not enough to instill confidence in a young group heading into the thick of SEC play. Holes appeared, assignments were blown, but the defense overcame its blunders.
Michael Palardy put his first pockmark on the 2013 season when, apparently, holder Tyler Drummer nicked the ball with his left hand. Palardy did connect on a 40-yarder and continues to look like a rejuvenated player.
Defense — C –
Offense — F
Special teams — C
Randy Moore's thoughts
Yogi Berra had it right: "It ain't over till it's over." With Tennessee leading 31-7 and facing a first-and-10 at South Alabama's 35-yard line early in the third quarter, Saturday's game at Neyland Stadium appeared to be over. The Vols fell asleep at this point, however, and wound up needing a late goal-line stand to preserve a 31-24 victory.
The fact Tennessee had to hold on for dear life to beat a team that only has been in existence for five years shows just how far the Vols have to go in order to be a quality program again. South Alabama is the kind of team The Big Orange used to put away in the first half and empty the bench in the second half. Nowadays the Vols have to get four stops on first-and-goal at the 7-yard line inside the final three minutes just to hang on for an ugly victory.
This game was a testament to the value of momentum. After outscoring the visitors 31-7 over the first 35 minutes, Tennessee let the Jaguars get some confidence and win the final 25 minutes by a 17-0 margin.
Justin Worley was wildly erratic, completing 20 of 36 passes for 204 yards but throwing three interceptions. The costliest, of course, was the one at South Alabama's 35-yard line that was returned to Tennessee's 5-yard line, turning the momentum to the visitors for good. Rajion Neal carried 25 times for a career-high 169 yards or Tennessee might have suffered a humiliating loss.
The Vol defense got shredded at the game's start and at the game's end. It had better jell in practice this week or Georgia will hang half-a-hundred points on the Vols.
The kicking game was excellent except for Michael Palardy's 52-yard field-goal attempt that wound up falling about 45 yards short of the crossbar. South Alabama returned it to the Vol 29-yard line and parlayed that break into a TD that narrowed the gap to 31-24.
Defense — D-minus
Offense — D
Special teams — B
Josh Woodward's thoughts
Tennessee won, lets get that out of the way. The Big Orange couldn't put away a pesky South Alabama team. As Coach Jones says this team has to overachieve, that just a nice way off saying they aren't very good.
Offensively the Vols ran the ball well, Rajion Neal had a career day running for 174 yards. Justin Worley still is hurting the team with his play. He has to stop forcing balls and needs to complete the easy passes. This team will only go as far as Justin Worley will take them, well at least till one of the freshman are ready.
Defensively when you give 412 yards in a game you should be concerned, especially if you are an SEC team going up against a Sunbelt team. The Vols have improved from last year but lack a pass rush that can make them a force. I really like the play of Brian Randolph and it has really helped getting Corey Vereen back from injury as he has a motor Tennessee hasn't seen at the defensive end in a few years.
Special Teams pulled off a great fake field goal only to flagged for a false start by Alex Bullard. The next play was Palardy mishit the ball and South Alabama returned the ball 48 yards which led to a South Alabama touchdown. Jacob Carter has been solid with his punt returns and I like the kick off returns by Vincent Dallas and JaRon Toney today. Still don't have a threat to return a kick off back.
Defense — D
Offense — D
Special teams — C
Danny Parker's thoughts
Slow start. Gut-wrenching finish.
Neither are what Tennessee had in mind in its last non-con tuneup before a stretch of one ranked team after another (Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama). However, as I said in the Insider Report, there's no such thing as an ugly win and the Volunteers are halfway to being bowl eligible at 3-2 overall.
On the passing game, is the issue quarterback Justin Worley throwing behind receivers or is it the wideouts themselves running the wrong routes? Hard to say but they better get that fixed and in a hurry.
The running game had only 90 rushing yards the final two quarters after rolling out 188 net in the first half. Consistency there is needed but Marlin Lane sporting a boot afterward is bad news.
Cameron Sutton was as up-and-down Saturday as I've seen him. He was beat bad at least twice but made some spectacular plays, including a near interception in the end zone. Corey Vereen continues to look the early stages of being the All-SEC player I expect him to eventually be. A.J. Johnson is playing the best ball of his career.
Allowing 412 yards of offense on your own field to the Jaguars is discouraging. Containing dual-threat quarterbacks is a clear issue.
Michael Palardy felt like he had a touchdown had the Volunteers not been flagged on the fake field goal try. Instead an attempt at a 52-yard field goal came up short for one reason or another. Jacob Carter is not going to remind anyone of Dale Carter but the former walk-on is at least catching punts. Cordarrelle Patterson isn't suiting up anymore so the return game is a mighty case of "it is what it is."
Defense — D
Offense — C-
Special teams — B