Saturday's blowout loss indicates the Vols are a long way from being back from the depths they sunk last season when injuries devastated the roster. But it might not be as reliable a barometer of the team's fight or resilience as some seem to think.
Strictly from a standpoint of emotional reserves, this team was running near empty going into the contest. We warned of this state before the Georgia game knowing that the Vols might not bounce back if they fell behind. Four tough SEC games in four weeks took their toll on the Vols energy level. First there was the emotional experience of beating Florida in Gainesville which proved more costly in 2001 when a much stronger UT squad lost to LSU in the SEC Championship game with a national title shot on the line. In 2003, the Vols also suffered a letdown and were forced to overtime at home in order to defeat a well-rested South Carolina team. That was followed by another daunting road trip to Auburn in which the Vols rallied from a 28-7 deficit before a red zone turnover in the final minute of play ended their courageous comeback at 28-21.
Those three trying contests set the stage for Saturday's collapse against Georgia in which the 14-point swing at the end of the first half predictably took the crowd and the Vols out of the game. Instead of having the lead and the ball to start the second half, Tennessee just had the ball and were facing a 13-point deficit against a defense that had shut down the run and only gave up one big play in the first half. That combination of circumstances left the Vols defense on the field far too long much as what happened against Auburn when the Vols could only move the ball through the air. In fact, in their last two games the Vols have controlled the ball approximately three quarters to their opponents' five quarters.
Another contributing factor to Tennessee's time of possession disparity is the inability of the Vols defense to force turnovers. UT has only forced seven turnovers this season while giving the ball away 12 times. That minus five on the giveaway-takeaway ratio is unacceptable for a quality team.
The Vols have forced a mere five fumbles in six games and have only recovered two opponent fumbles. This is a low number of forced turnovers for any defense, but especially one as aggressive as Tennessee's. Part of the problem is the Vols shoddy tackling. Another is Tennessee's failure to strip the ball. Of course, if you're not tackling consistently or getting a lot of defenders around the ball, it stands to reason you won't have many opportunities to strip the football from an opponent. Likewise, if the defensive line isn't keeping the guards off the linebackers they won't get many clean shots at ball carriers.
With opponents controlling the ball, the clock and field position, the first casualty of the fatigue factor is the defensive line where Tennessee is still searching for solid starters to say nothing of dependable subs. The success of the run as executed by South Carolina, Auburn and Georgia left UT's secondary and linebackers vulnerable to play-action and big plays, particularly on third down. Opponents have also picked up 14 first downs via penalties this season.
Conversely, Tennessee has established no running game to speak of in its last three contests which in turn has limited the effectiveness of the passing game. UT employs a power-I offensive scheme which is only viable as a passing attack when play action is deployed. Of course, if the running game isn't working, play action is also limited. For Instance: Georgia's offense, which is fronted by a line comprised entirely of sophomores and freshmen, couldn't dominate most opponents with either the pass or run but blend the two in harmony and it makes beautiful music.
When Tennessee breaks from the I-formation, there's virtually no chance it will run the ball which allows defenses to tee off on the quarterback. Likewise, when the Vols align themselves in the I-formation, opponents' safeties are walking up in run support and gaining a numerical advantage that the Vols haven't been able to overcome. Even when UT is winning the one-on-one battles up front, there often aren't enough blockers for defenders and Tennessee's running backs haven't been able to get past the free defender with any degree of consistency. Additionally, the offense is usually breaking down because of one missed assignment instead of several and the culprit varies. Last week it was anyone assigned to stop the Bulldogs' David Pollack.
The inability of the running game to complement the passing attack has left Tennessee without an identity on offense. This is often reflected in play calling as the Vols sometimes come out determined to move the ball on the ground while other times disdaining the rushing attack all together in favor of the pass. At times it seems like UT's offense is one of two minds. The I-formation imposes severe restrictions on the passing game and the Vols haven't made effect use of draws, delays, play action or misdirection. Likewise, Tennessee rarely, if ever, runs out of the shotgun with a single back or effectively makes use of backs as receivers. UT hasn't thrown a single pass to the tight end this season and screens are not a staple of the offense.
Most of the time, it appears as though the Vols adopt a linear approach to attacking the defense, passing down field, running up field and dropping straight back. No rollouts, no rolling pockets, no sprint outs, no throw backs, no option looks, little motion, few overloads and limited crossing routes. Tennessee could run the same plays it runs now more effectively if it just varied what it does before the snap. Give the defense a lot of motion, shifts and different looks. Create some excitement for the fans and confusion for the foes before the play ever begins.
One of the best ways to keep strong safeties honest is to place them in a run-pass bind. Use the dump pass if he creeps up to play the run, or run an eight to ten yard hook route with the flanker over his position. Get wide and run an arch course to the outside number of the strong safety. Allow the strong safety to slip inside, stay wide and throttle down once you clear the strong safety. Width is more important than depth as the receiver can be hit on the run with an intermediate pass to create a big play, as opposed to trying to go over the top where the completion percentage drops dramatically. Note: these are simply some suggestions made by a biased analyst based on close observations and study of TV tape which doesn't present as comprehensive a picture as the game film used by UT's coaching staff. Admittedly, nobody outside UT's coaching staff knows exactly how the attack is intended to work or the strategy behind the plays that are called. They are the ones to make the adjustments and to fix what's broken. It's an excellent staff that is fully qualified to perform this overhaul.
However despite this experience, qualifications and talent, the fact remains that over the last 19 games Tennessee is averaging 22.9 points per game compared to the 32 points per contest it averaged from 1997 through 2001. Last season the Vols lacked wide receivers, a healthy offensive line or a healthy quarterback, but still managed to score 22.8 points per contest. This season they have depth at wide receiver, a healthy offensive line and quarterback, but are averaging just half a point more at 23.3 points per game.
Phillip Fulmer said the Vols have a lot of "soul searching" to do during the two weeks leading up to the annual showdown with Alabama. They also have a lot of role searching to do. The coaches have to find the players to best fill the responsibilities on both sides of the ball regardless of class or experience. There is simply too much talent on the offensive line for the Vols to be struggling like they are, especially with the running game which has long been Tennessee's forte.
With UT's goals in apparent shambles, the challenge becomes to finish the season strong and build a solid foundation for the future. It's not an easy task, but it is worthwhile for everyone in Big Orange Country. It's also critical for the success of the recruiting season that looms large on the horizon.