Fortunately, the Vols had been in this situation before and they responded like battled-tested veterans, battling back to win their third straight SEC game in the final period of play.
As exciting as fourth-quarter comebacks can be, it is a dangerous M.O. for a team to live by. Ideally, the Vols would have some cushion and use their depth to put the game away in the in fourth quarter. Yet, without a productive running game that may be wishful thinking.
Here's the top to bottom offensive 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 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 (7.0) RECEIVERS (94) Robert Meachem is on the verge of putting together the biggest season ever for a wideout at the school formerly known as Wide Receiver U. He had five catches for 106 yards against S.C., hauling in a 62-yard reception to flip field position and set up UT's final score. He has also become one of the best down field blockers the Vols have had at receiver in recent memory. Bret Smith, who is the Vols best pass catcher around the goal line, had four catches for 23 yards and two touchdowns. Jayson Swain threw off the walking boot to grab three catches for 45 yards. That trio of starters accounted for 174 of UT's 325 yards and two of the offense's three TDs in addition to setting up the field goal. Tight end Brad Cottam had three receptions for 24 yards and Chris Brown added another for 14 yards. Depth is still a concern as there is a substantial drop-off to the next tier of wideouts.
QUARTERBACK (90) Erik Ainge led Tennessee on an 80-yard scoring march in the first quarter to give the Vols a 14-0 advantage and then directed them on a 79-yard, 13-play drive in the fourth quarter to put them back in the lead for good. He also connected with Meachem on a clutch 62-yard hookup. That was one of the few times he went down field with the ball. Instead he threw the usual assortment of high percentage passes, allowing the receivers and backs to pile up yards after the catch. It's a sound approach to take because defenses are stacking the box to shut down the run and are vulnerable on the flanks and in the flats. Ainge hit on 21 of 29 passes for 254 yards and two TDs. However his first scoring pass was forced into coverage and the Vols were fortunate to come down with the carom. He had a series in which he was wild high, but settled down and demonstrated nice touch along with sound decision making. He also completed a couple of throws on the move and calmly went through his progressions. He was sacked once but, for the most part, had great protection. Ainge gained five yards on one run which was his longest of the year. Jonathan Crompton relieved Ainge (ankle injury) on UT's final possession, and handed off three times. Efforts need to be made to get Crompton some significant reps behind the center.
OFFENSIVE LINE (81) One day some opponent is going to decide the way to beat Tennessee is to stop the pass first, then we might learn if UT's front five can block for the run. As it is, the numbers in the O-line simply aren't sufficient to run the ball consistently. With that qualifier out of the way, the Vols did hurt themselves with holding penalties that brought back a couple of double digit gains and stymied drives. The Vols' front allowed only its fifth sack of the season which is second best in the country and tops in the SEC. Tennessee only converted 3 of 9 third down attempts, but scored on all four trips inside the red zone.
RUNNING BACKS (77) Injuries have taken their toll among the tailbacks and severely curtailed what the Vols can accomplish on the ground. With LaMarcus Coker out for the foreseeable future and Arian Foster (12 carries for 37 yards and a touchdown) hampered by a nagging ankle sprain, much of the load has fallen on Montario Hardesty (27 yards in eight carries), who is very athletic but doesn't display the instincts of a feature back at this point. However he is a productive receiver out of the backfield, as he demonstrated with a 22-yard reception against the Gamecocks. He was also impressive picking up a blitz, giving Ainge time to find an open receiver. A blue chip prospect like Caleb King or John Clay could impact this position significantly next fall.
OVERALL (85) There was a lot to like about UT's offensive effort against a solid South Carolina defense, but there's also room for improvement, especially with the running game. The lack of a running threat at QB compounds the problems and leaves the Vols with a very narrow margin for error. The inability to score in the second and third quarters allowed S.C. to get back in the game. On the plus side, the offense committed no turnovers and responded well once Carolina grabbed the lead. There's no comparison to UT's 2005 season. The O-line has improved immensely as have the quarterback and receivers. Still the area that may be most improved is play calling, as David Cutcliffe always seems to be a couple of moves ahead of the competition.