The Vols' bipolar play is so beyond the norm that the time honored, gridiron axiom that states: "Defense wins championships," now requires an asterisk denoting — "As long as the offense doesn't stink, and special teams don't get in the way."
John Chavis' defense has overcome injuries, including the loss of top gun Jason Allen. It has endured the vagaries of inexperience and bounced back from the punch in the gut that is adversity, again and again.
Of course it hasn't been perfect, not even Buddy Ryan's 46 defense as practiced by the 1985 Chicago Bears can say that. However, it has played with energy and passion. It has smothered the run, pressured the quarterback, hit with authority and kept Tennessee in every contest.
Imagine what it would do with a big lead, a little more rest and better field position. What if opposing offenses had to play catch up instead of keep away? If it wasn't continually putting out fires, UT's D could turn up the heat and force more mistakes. As it is, Tennessee's stop troops play on a tight rope with no margin for error.
In some instances, like the first half at Baton Rouge, the Vols' offense did more to help LSU's cause than the Tigers' offense did. It's one thing for an offense to be unproductive but quite another for it to be counter productive.
Here's the top to bottom defensive ratings for the Tennessee-Alabama 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 problematical and won't be good enough to defeat a quality opponent. Any grade below 60 is considered failing. Special teams are included among defensive ratings but they aren't factored into the defense's total score.
DEFENSIVE LINE (96) Tennessee's D-line stood and delivered against Bama, holding the Tide's ground game to 67 net yards in 35 carries, while sacking Brodie Croyle four times. Starting defensive ends Parys Haralson and Jason Hall contributed two sacks each for 30 yards in losses. Haralson, who has taken his game up a notch or two as the season has progressed, also recovered a fumble, which was Bama's only turnover on the day. Xavier Mitchell had a couple of assists and a QB hurry off the bench in relief of Hall. The combination of Justin Harrell and the M Men — Jesse Mahelona, Turk McBride, Tony McDaniel and Matt McGlothlin — kept Bama's O-line off UT's backers and combined for 11 tackles. McBride appeared to be very motivated after his offsides outbreak against Georgia and was conspicuous with his quickness in the middle. LINEBACKERS (93) Kevin Simon had a game-high 11 tackles, including a sack, a stop behind the line of scrimmage and a quarterback hurry, as he continues to put together a stellar senior season. (No one in college football is more deserving of a sweet swan song). Omar Gaither (four tackles, one solo) appeared to play more coverage and wasn't as aggressive as usual, which may have been an indication he was playing hurt. Jerrod Mayo came off the bench to post four tackles, including three primary hits, while Jason and Marvin Mitchell had three stops apiece. Ryan Karl saw limited action and was credited with a breakup of a pass he nearly intercepted. Not having Jason Allen on the field as a fourth linebacker has taken away some of the freedom UT's LBs used to enjoy. The defense has adjusted by involving DBs more in blitz packages. DEFENSIVE BACKS (92) This grade takes into account the Vols were playing without Allen for the first full game and had to replace an injured Antwan Stewart. On the other side of the coin it considers Bama didn't have many healthy receivers. Inky Johnson had an excellent game in his first career start, finishing with seven tackles (five solo), a forced fumble and a pass break up. Antonio Gaines wasn't as fortune when forced into the first extended play of his career, as he surrendered the 43-yard completion to set Bama up for the game winning field goal. In fairness, Gaines had pretty good coverage on Tide receiver D.J. Hall, but he didn't find the ball when it was airborne. Only two Bama wide receivers caught passes in the game but Hall had 10 for 139 yards, despite being limited by an ankle injury. If you take away the 43 yarder, Bama just had 147 yards through the air as Croyle completed 17-of-27. Jonathan Wade had a team-high six solo stops and continues to develop into UT's most pleasant surprise on defense this season. Jonathan Hefney had three tackles and Demetrice Morley, who projects to get more PT, had one.
OVERALL (94) Alabama wasn't the best offense the Vols have seen this year and there are more dangerous tests down the road, but the Tide had an excellent QB and tailback with a young but capable offensive line. They also had a home field advantage with an amped up audience that was eager to see the Tide inflict the type of dominance it enjoyed against Florida three weeks ago. It didn't happen because, against all odds, UT's defense wouldn't allow it.
SPECIAL TEAMS (72) UT reportedly devoted a lot of time to special teams play during its off week, but it was still a mixed bag for the Vols against Bama. Lucas Taylor showed promise returning four punts for 31 yards and three kickoffs for 74 yards, but he also muffed a fair catch that led to Alabama's first field goal and he hesitated bringing the opening kickoff off the goal line, leaving the Vols with bad field position at their 10. Likewise, Jason Wilhoit knocked home a season-long 32-yard field goal for the Vols only points, but left one of his kickoffs short, giving Bama the ball at the 34. Coverage was good and punting was solid with the exception of one short effort.