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InsideTennessee finds innovative ways to cover Vol football. Check out this colorful recap of Tennessee's Homecoming game:

You could make a good case that Michael Palardy was Tennessee's offensive and defensive MVP in Saturday's 55-23 Homecoming loss to Auburn. That's pretty telling, since Palardy plays neither offense nor defense.

Tennessee's senior kicker was the Vols' leading scorer on offense, scoring 11 points on three field goals and two PATs.

Incredibly, he probably was the Vols' best tackler on this day, as well. Palardy made two touchdown-saving stops on kick returns. At halftime he was Tennessee's fourth-leading tackler, which was more a discredit to Vol defenders than a credit to Palardy.

The Vol senior probably ranks as the Comeback Player of the Year in college football. Last fall he kicked so poorly that he lost his job to walk-on Derrick Brodus for four games. Palardy missed a couple of extra points in 2012 and was relegated to field-goal tries under 40 yards. This season he's 13 of 15 on field-goal attempts and 30 of 30 on PATs. He's also punting exceptionally well and doing a good job on kickoffs.

And, lately, he's establishing himself as one of Tennessee's surest tacklers. Of course, that isn't saying much.

Where the game was lost

When defensive end Jacques Smith returned an interception 18 yards for a touchdown with 1:28 left in the second quarter, it appeared Tennessee would go to intermission with a 27-20 deficit but a surge of momentum. Smith incurred a 15-yard celebration penalty for spiking the ball, however, forcing Tennessee to kick off from its 20-yard line. Auburn returned the kick to the Vol 45-yard line and scored in two plays – reclaiming the momentum, building a 34-20 halftime lead and quieting the crowd. When the Tigers returned the second-half kickoff 90 yards, padding the gap to 41-20, the game was officially over.

The big picture

As awful as Tennessee looked in losing its last three games to Alabama (45-10), Missouri (31-3) and Auburn (55-23), the Vols still have a chance to go 6-6 and earn a bowl bid. That's what most folks projected as a realistic goal in preseason.

Unless Tennessee plugs some of the gaping holes in its defense during the next two weeks, however, a 2-0 finish is not realistic.

Players of the game

Offense: Rajion Neal. The senior tailback rushed 20 times for 124 yards. This performance came on the heels of an 8-rush, 8-yard effort seven days earlier at Missouri. Asked what sparked the turnaround, Neal told IT: "I think we just got back to running the ball, got back into the style of football that we're used to … just believing and trusting in them guys upfront. I think that's really all that it was this week, man – just believing in them guys and giving them a chance to move some piles, let the backs get downhill and work a little bit."

Defense: Brian Randolph. Despite playing with two bad shoulders, the sophomore safety tied for the team lead with 8 tackles. He clearly isn't the player he can be when completely healthy but Randolph showed plenty of grit on a day when Tennessee's defense was utterly outclassed by a ground-hugging Auburn offense that piled up 444 rushing yards and attempted just seven passes.

"They had two explosive runners in the backfield – the quarterback (Nick Marshall) and the running back (Tre Mason), so we had to honor both," Randolph told IT.

Vol defenders may have honored the Tiger duo but they rarely tackled them. Marshall averaged a whopping 15.3 yards per carry (14 rushes, 214 yards) and Mason averaged 5.8 per carry (20 carries, 117 yards).

"The quarterback did a good job of carrying out his fakes," Randolph said, "and we didn't get the job done."

Asked why teams with mobile quarterbacks give Tennessee so much trouble, Randolph replied: "It's an extra hat for them to block with. They've got 10 guys blocking, instead of nine, so it gives them a better opportunity."

Next up …

Vanderbilt (Nov. 23 in Knoxville): The Commodores improved to 5-4 overall and 2-4 in SEC play by trouncing Florida 34-17 Saturday in Gainesville. It was Vandy's first win in Gainesville since 1945. Tennessee has an open date this week before hosting the Dores next weekend.

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