Over the course of 17 games spanning the 1938, 1939 and 1940 seasons, the Volunteers formidable defensive forces surrendered a paltry 14 points. Ironically, Auburn inflicted the same amount of damage on Tennessee in the first 6:25 of the SEC Championship game.
The General's foolproof philosophy wasn't fully embraced by the Volunteers against Auburn, but his time-honored point was vividly underscored when Tennessee lost the SEC title by ten points.
Undoubtedly, the game of college football has changed dramatically since Neyland ruled the gridiron roost. However, the importance of defense is not one of them, and 28 points should still be enough to win a conference a crown.
Anytime a defense is victimized for 559 yards, 31 first downs and 38 points there's plenty of blame to go around. And not all of it falls on the Vols stop troops. UT's offense provided plenty of production; what it didn't provide with consistency or the semblance of ball control.
A combination of big plays and short drives by UT's offense resulted in the game's most insightful statistic, as Auburn controlled the ball for 39:31 to Tennessee's 20:18. In fact, the Vols' four touchdowns took a total of just 4:56 off the clock. And UT's longest drive of the game didn't occur until its final possession and it consumed just 3:13 of the clock.
The Vols didn't have another drive that last as long as three minutes in the title game. Conversely, Auburn had six drives of over three minutes, including possessions that ate 6:14, 5:45 and 4:43 of the clock.
It's easy to see how UT's defense wore down over the course of the game. It's harder to understand why the Vols didn't play better early when fatigue wasn't a factor. These type of slow starts were typical of the season as were Tennessee's resilient rallies. The bottom-line: You can only spot a good team so many points. And while Tennessee overcame the deficit to tie the score, it never once had the ball with a chance to take the lead.
Here's the top to bottom offensive ratings for the Tennessee-Auburn game. Grades of 90-100 are regarded as championship quality. Grades of 80-89 equate to top 25 worthy, grades of 70-79 are average marks. Grades of 60-69 are passing but highly problematical. Any grade below 60 is considered failing against any quality opponent. We have included special teams play in the defensive ratings.
SPECIAL TEAMS (90) This may have been UT's best overall performance on special teams, considering the quality of the opponent and the significance of the contest. The cover teams stopped Auburn cold, holding Williams to four yards on a pair of punt returns and 43 yards on three kickoff returns with a long of 14 yards. Daniel Brooks was involved in a violent collision with Williams on one kickoff that shook up both players. A good job by James Wilhoit getting his kicks high and deep. Dustin Colquitt returned to form with a 50-yard punt and placed three of his six punts inside Auburn's 20. His only bad kick was a net 31-yard effort. By comparison, the Tigers Kody Bliss had two punts for a 29.5 yard average and he mishandled one high snap that set UT up in business at the Tigers 14. Gerald Riggs hauled back UT's only kick return for 23 yards. Tennessee had a clear victory in the kicking game and appeared more energized than any other outing this season. The only question: Why did it take so long?
LINEBACKERS (75) The Vols tackling troubles against Auburn's outstanding backs and receivers didn't extend to the linebackers, who were led by Omar Gaither with a career-high 18 stops (15 solo). Gaither made three stops behind the line of scrimmage and recorded UT's only sack. Senior captain Kevin Burnett capped his best season on the Hill with ten solo stops and three assists. He also forced the Carnell Williams' fumble on Auburn's first possession that was recovered by the Tigers for a touchdown. It was a well-timed blow that could have reversed the outcome if Tennessee had been fortunate enough to corral the ball. Jason Mitchell had six stops and a quarterback hurry, however, he has never appeared comfortable playing in the middle, where he was moved following Kevin Simon's season-ending knee injury. Jon Poe contributed only one tackle and has problems in pass coverage. The anticipated return of Simon and Marvin Mitchell will be a significant upgrade to next season's linebacker corps and the Vols will be looking for some young talent to boost depth here.
DEFENSIVE LINE (71) UT's depleted D-line got a strong game from Jesse Mahelona (five solo tackles with two for losses) while Turk McBride stepped in at the other tackle in place of Justin Haralson, who played sparingly after suffering an ankle sprain last week against Kentucky. McBride's quickness is an asset here but his inexperience shows when trying to get off blocks or maintaining his run gap. He finished with two tackles, a couple of QB hurries and a fumble recovery. McBride also jumped off sides a couple of times. He didn't make contact with the O-lineman on his second violation but the defense relaxed expecting a whistle. Auburn's Jason Campbell took advantage of the distraction to toss a 42-yard touchdown to Ben Obomanu. Defensive end Parys Haralson had three tackles with two quarterback hurries. He was also in too big a hurry to hit Jason Campbell on one play and was flagged for a 15-yard personal foul with the score tied 21-21 in the third quarter. Karlton Neal (two tackles) was steady but not the type of force the Vols needed off the edge on the backside. Tony McDaniel and Harrell had one tackle each in limited play. True freshman Xavier Mitchell and redshirt freshman Jared Hostetter saw action and each recorded a tackle at defensive end. Fellow freshman Antonio Reynolds added two stops during a couple of series at defensive end. The D-line had its moments Saturday, but didn't generate the pressure on the passer UT needed to win.
SECONDARY (46) Tennessee's defensive backs were burned early and often by Auburn's Campbell who finished as the game's outstanding player. The senior signal caller connected on 27-of-35 passes for 374 yards and three touchdowns. The Tigers had pass plays of 56, 53 and 43 yards and averaged 10.4 yards per pass attempt. After leaving the game with a cut, Jason Allen returned to record six stops which was the same as freshman Jonathan Hefney. Sophomores Jonathan Wade and Corey Campbell had five stops each and probably the the same number of missed tackles. Campbell made a momentum turning interception near the end of the first half that kept the Tigers off the board. There were a lot more low lights than highlights for secondary which has become the Vols weakest link in 2004. UT never found a replacement for the dismissed Brandon Johnson, making his random gun play the shot heard throughout the SEC.
OVERALL (70) Special team's play and non support from the offense lifts this mark, but the slow start against a team that hadn't played for two weeks and only twice since Oct. 30 let the Tigers off the hook. It's a long way from how the Vols played defense against Georgia and Alabama.