Rarely can a team survive a minus-3 turnover ratio against a quality opponent. The fact Tennessee did is a tribute to its defense and kicking game, but there were bright spots when the Vols had the ball.
Here's the top to bottom offensive 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 winning 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. An opponent degree of difficulty (between 1 and 10) has been added to the formula.
DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY (7.5)
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN (88) Yeah, it's a bit of a good news, bad news scenario with UT's passing game producing 302 yards and the ground game 57 yards, but that shows just how misleading statistics can be. Alabama's defense played man coverage, aligned itself to stop the run and guarded against the deep pass. That left the Vols to pick and poke at the perimeter with short and medium range passes. To the degree they succeeded in doing that was largely due to an offensive line that didn't allow a single sack, and only one hurry, in 46 passing attempts. The lack of productivity on the ground is disappointing, but it's virtually impossible for one man to block two defenders simultaneously. With the numbers not there, the Vols tried to get enough push up front with zone blocking for the backs to carve out some yards. Defense dictates much of what an offense can do, and every UT opponent has made stopping the run the priority. Kudos to the O-line for picking up positive yards on a pair of screen passes. The composition of this group is interesting with the six starters all coming from different states in the SEC. Josh McNeil is from Mississippi, David Ligon is from Tennessee, Anthony Parker is from Georgia, Eric Young is from South Carolina, Arron Sears is from Alabama and tight end Chris Brown is from Louisiana.
RECEIVERS (87) Deduct points for a couple of dropped passes and sloppy routes. Otherwise, UT's wideouts were their usual stellar selves, especially Robert Meachem (six catches for 87 yards) who is deserving of All-America honors. Meachem is extremely dangerous after the catch because of his outstanding speed, but he also demonstrates great core strength in ripping through tackles, to say nothing of his sure hands. With Jayson Swain (three catches for 37 yards) hobbled by a high ankle sprain, Brett Smith (seven catches for 95 yards) raised his game another notch. Smith made the critical catch near the goal line that set up UT's only touchdown scored in the last two years against Alabama. Sophomore Josh Briscoe came off the bench to make three catches for 22 yards. Brown had one catch for six yards in a reduced role, while Lucas Taylor added a seven-yard reception. Tennessee's receivers have probably been more consistent than any unit on the team this season.
QUARTERBACK (72) How Erik Ainge was named CBS' player of the game is beyond rationality. Sure he threw for 302 yards, but he also threw three interceptions that were returned 90 yards, and he threw zero TDs. That's 212 net yards in 46 pass attempts or 4.7 yards per pass. Alabama rookie QB John Parker Wilson averaged 5.4 yards per pass with no interceptions and he was sacked three times while hurried four times. Thanks to great defense the three interceptions only cost Tennessee six points, until you factor in the three potential scores they took away from the Vols. Then it ranges from a low of 15 points to a high of 27. That's the difference between a comfortable Tennessee win and a nail-biter. Ainge did throw some good passes and he deserves a lot of credit for keeping his cool and leading the Vols on their fourth quarter scoring drive. He also made a good effort to force Simeon Castille out of bounds and save a touchdown on a second quarter interception return of 60 yards. On the other hand, he failed to get the Vols out of a called QB sneak when they went for it on fourth and short in the second half and Alabama's defense stacked the middle of the line in anticipation of the keeper. Overall, it wasn't a great outing for Ainge, but the final scoring drive made it a lot more bearable and, on balance, he has been very good this season.
RUNNING BACKS (70) Most of Tennessee's problems establishing a ground game were due to Alabama's defensive deployment, but the backs didn't demonstrate the type of vision or determination you would expect at this point in the season. When LaMarcus Coker (five carries for 12 yards) got hurt returning a second half kick, the Vols lost their home run hitter. Arian Foster (34 yards and a touchdown in 11 carries) is the most consistent runner and shows the best instincts. He's also an excellent receiver out of the backfield (five catches for 42 yards). Montario Hardesty had nine yards in two carries filling in for Coker. Hardesty has very good speed, but he's also very raw as a runner and he doesn't seem to spot holes easily. Playing experience should help that problem, but you have to wonder if his future may be brighter as a defensive back when the Vols have the depth to support such a switch.
OVERALL (79) As ugly as this performance got at times, the Vols were able to prevail over a team that always gives them fits as a double-digit dog. In the course of any memorable football season, you have to be able to win games when you're not playing your best ball. Example: 1998 vs. Arkansas at Neyland Stadium. The tests will get tougher over the next three weeks, and the Vols will have to get tougher in order to win.