CORY GUNKEL'S TAKE
Butch Jones started out his press conference by saying there is no such thing as a moral victory at the University of Tennessee. And while that may very well be the case, if there were, Tennessee would have just won the moral SEC title game. The Vols had the ball with less than three minutes left and a chance to beat No. 8 Alabama despite missing two starters on the offensive line and a young wide receiver who factors into the rotation. The Vols racked up 132 rushing yards on the No. 3 run defense in the country and held a lead on Alabama in the fourth quarter for the first time since 2006. The Vols still lost.
Tennessee, playing without a bevy of starters and in a hostile environment, needed just 79 seconds after falling behind in the fourth quarter to retake the lead on its old rival. The Vols played well enough to win the game, which is something they haven't been able to do in nearly six years: hang with the Tide. But moral victories are unacceptable when you're a tradition-rich SEC power, so the Vols will slump back to Knoxville with a loss that, in reality, is no different than their previous three one-possession defeats prior.
What went right for Tennessee? For starters, Jalen Hurd single-handedly ran for more yards vs. Alabama (92) than teams have averaged against the Tide this season (70). The Vols have undoubtedly found their identity, and it lies on the ground. Hurd fought his way for nearly 100 yards against a staunch 'Bama front seven led by two potential All-America candidates in defensive lineman A'Shawn Robinson and Reggie Ragland. Corey Vereen broke out for the best game of his career after notching his first multi-sack game ever at Tennessee. The Vols' defense looked tremendous at stretches, sacking Alabama more times than any team has since Oklahoma beat Nick Saban's squad in the 2014 Sugar Bowl. The D played unbelievably good for most of the game, relenting only 19 points to an efficient Alabama offense while holding the Tide to 5-of-12 on third down. With two freshmen holding down the right side, the offensive line didn't look like a disaster, and that's enough to hang a banner. Jalen Reeves-Maybin is a grown man. His production at the second level this season will make him an All-America candidate and rightfully so.
What went wrong? The final score, obviously, and the final drive in which Josh Dobbs took two backbreaking sacks, one which resulted in a fumble that sealed the game for the Crimson Tide. The offense lost its rhythm in the middle of the game and struggled to pass the ball effectively despite a couple of big plays. Aaron Medley's three missed field goals, despite two being from 50-plus, were enormously bad breaks. Kenyan Drake crossed over Colton Jumper like Allen Iverson on a dump-off pass, which was crazy to watch, but there really wasn't one glaring weakness for the Vols (other than field goal kicking). Tennessee played well enough on offense and defense to snag a victory in Tuscaloosa, but in the end, Alabama simply refused to let it happen.
Special teams: C-
DANNY PARKER'S TAKE
Butch Jones called it right — there are no moral victories.
The "L" isn't shaped any different in the win-loss column because you played solid football. If there's a team that understands that it's Tennessee.
Add another "shoulda, woulda, coulda" to the résumé after falling to No. 8 Alabama 19-14 on Saturday at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa.
The Volunteers (3-4, 1-3 Southeastern Conference) have now lost nine in a row to the Crimson Tide and are likely eliminated from the slightest of hopes to represent the SEC East in Atlanta for the league title.
Here are the positives: Tennessee netted 132 yards on the ground (with true freshmen Chance Hall and Jack Jones on the right side of the offensive line) against the No. 2-ranked rush defense in the country. The Vols led the most talent-rich roster in the nation (20-plus former Scout five-star prospect) in its back yard with less than 3 minutes to play. The Orange & White got five sacks with no Curt Maggitt, no Trevarris Saulsberry and no Shy Tuttle. Not one object thrown from the stands at InsideTennessee's photographer hit its target.
Is this the same-ole Tennessee? Going by what matters most (wins), yes. If you go by how gritty Team 119 played in spite of having so many odds stacked against them in a bowl of crimson, no.
The four-play, 75-yard drive that took all of 79 seconds to give Tennessee a 14-13 lead in the fourth would have gone down as one of the most clutch in the program's modern history had the defense been able to hold on late.
Vols junior Jalen Reeves-Maybin (11 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss) competed like a champion. Sophomore cornerback Justin Martin (7 tackles) earned the right to start at Kentucky. Junior defensive end Corey Vereen (2 sacks) owned one of the better offensive tackles in the nation for a portion of the game.
Aaron Medley's three missed field goals mean the sophomore is 9-of-17 on the season. From my viewpoint, he appears to be getting the football up and on time but it just off from splitting the uprights. If he was perfect this year, there's no way Tennessee is 3-4. Perfection is an awful lot to ask for, but his becoming more accurate is essential to not only how the Vols do their final five games but in 2016 and 2017.
Special teams: C
JOSH WOODWARD'S TAKE
Wow, what a game. I loved the game plan Tennessee put together for Alabama. Tennessee showed that they are getting better as the year goes.
Offensively, I was impressed with how well the offensive line played against this Alabama defensive front. Chance Hall and Jack Jones deserve a helmet sticker for this game. Although Hall gave up that sack that forced the fumble at the end of the game, he still played well all night. Joshua Dobbs made some nice downfield throws and I liked the designed runs that he had. Josh Smith had a heck of a game, as did Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara. The playcalling by the coaching needs to be mentioned. I thought it was spot on.
Defensively, I loved how they stopped the run and kept Alabama quarterback Jacob Coker from getting easy yards with his feet down the field. The defensive line was really impressive, especially Corey Vereen and Derek Barnett. Jalen Reeves Maybin continues to shine in these big games. This was an impressive coaching job by the defensive staff, and my hat is off to them.
Special teams was off some tonight. Aaron Medley missed those three field goals, but they were long so I'm not blaming him. They will fall for him soon enough. Trevor Daniel wasn't his normal self, although he had a nice average, but his punts lacked the boom he has had this season. I did like putting both Kamara and Cam Sutton on punts. Tennessee didn't have much of returns on them, but still like the concept.
Overall, I think all fans should be pleased with the way Tennessee played the game. The outcome wasn't what everyone wanted, but the fight in this team is as good as we have seen in years. If this team wins out, it will be a two game improvement from last year. That will set the Vols up for a season to remember in 2016.