Essentially, Tennessee's defense has been as good as its offense has been bad. Despite consistent success this fall which has actually managed to exceed near impossible preseason expectations, UT's defenders share the same outrageous fortune as do Tennessee's offenders. (Pun intended.)
This season long state of inequity can't help but to eventually create internal strife and deep division on any team already intrinsically separated down the middle by the unit they play for and are identified with.
Since defense requires more energy and emotion to play than offense, the overriding question is: when will UT's defenders start to show the toll of carrying the load alone?
In truth, we may have already witnessed the beginnings of it against South Carolina, and with a powerful Notre Dame offense waiting in the wings with two weeks to prepare the full impact could be felt on Saturday.
Here's the top to bottom defensive ratings for the Tennessee-South Carolina 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. We have broken down the units this week to offense and defense. Special teams are also included in the defensive grades, although not factored into overall grade for defense.
DEFENSIVE LINE (93) Another outstanding game by UT's D-line especially defensive end Jason Hall who had seven solo stops, including two sacks, one for a safety and another stop behind the line of scrimmage in a career-best performance. Jesse Mahelona also had seven tackles (four solo) with a QB hurry, while Justin Harrell had four solo stops including three behind the line of scrimmage. Parys Haralson, Tony McDaniel and Xavier Mitchell had four, three and two solo tackles respectively, including one each for minus yardage. An ankle injury sidelined Turk McBride (one assist) for most of the game. Matt McGlothin added one assist off the bench. Without a doubt this is the best Tennessee defensive line since 2001 when John Henderson and Albert Haynesworth anchored the trenches at tackle. This group has more depth than the 2001 unit and may be as good on balance as any in the nation.
LINEBACKER (84) Another strong outing overall although they got out of position on a few draw plays and didn't defend enough of the underneath routes that helped sustain South Carolina drives. Omar Gaither recorded seven stops (two solo), while Kevin Simon had six tackles (three solo) and a couple of quarterback hurries. Jason Mitchell finished with four tackles (one solo) and he broke up a pass. Jerrod Mayo didn't post any tackles against the Gamecocks and UT's overall depth at this position has yet to materialize. The Vols have been fortunate to avoid injuries at linebacker to this point, but the lack of reps for some of the younger LBs raises questions about how rapid the Vols might rebuild this unit for next year.
SECONDARY (76) A big game from Jonathan Hefney who continues to surprise this so-called expert with his ability to play larger at safety than his size would indicate. The Rock Hill, S.C., native led Tennessee with nine tackles (eight solo) plus he intercepted a pass and returned it 37 yards to deny the Gamecocks a score and putting the Vols in position to score. (Of course, the offense didn't comply.) A punishing tackler who hits with authority and reacts well to balls thrown in his direction. Antwan Stewart has been less impressive overall, but he is coming back from a year layoff and playing a new position. He totaled four tackles against South Carolina, featuring a takedown for a two-yard loss. Demetrice Morley contributed a tackle and a pass breakup in limited play. It was also a mixed bag at corner where Jonathan Wade and Inky Johnson smothered the deep routes and combined for five breakups, but didn't press South Carolina's receivers off the line in the fourth quarter and surrendered too many completions on the slant. Both of Carolina's touchdowns came through the air including the fourth-quarter TD which defeated double coverage. Roshaun Fellows had a tackle and pass breakup in reserve duty.
OVERALL: Whether UT's failure to jam South Carolina's wide receivers was by design or defeat is unknown, but there's no doubt it was critical to the outcome. Holding an opponent to 16 points should be good enough to win most games, but Tennessee's defense did twice surrender the lead in the fourth quarter at home against an inferior opponent. Could that be a sign of a team that is beginning to buckle under the stain of baring the burden of success alone? South Bend should hold the answers to that question.
SPECIAL TEAMS (98) If the General could have been reached for a comment about the play of Tennessee's special teams, he might have exclaimed: "That's what I'm talking about." Or he might have asked: "What took you so long?" The Vols finally put together a kicking game worthy of Neyland as Britton Colquitt knocked a pair of punts dead inside South Carolina's five and two more inside the 20. One of those hangers was fumbled and recovered by the Vols. Tennessee also knocked the ball loose on a kickoff return and pounced on it. UT had 98 yards in kick returns compared to 22 for S.C. Wilhoit made two of three field goal attempts while the Gamecocks connected on one of two.