Offense: Running on Empty

Any chance Tennessee had of beating Florida depended on the offense having a big game i.e., controlling the ball, commanding field position and posting 35 or more points on the Ben Hill Griffin Stadium scoreboard.

The Gators' appeared to have a vulnerability to body blows aimed at the underbelly where graduation hit the defense hardest. (Yes, they lost more DBs, but it's harder to replace DTs.) That susceptibility may yet prove real on another day, another place and against a tougher opponent. For example: Oct. 6 in Baton Rouge against LSU. However it wasn't going to happen for Tennessee which finished with 37 yards on the ground a year after losing 11 yards rushing vs. Florida.

Any fantasies of Tennessee revising "pound the rock" dissipated in the late summer sunshine that bathe legions of loyalist assembled at The Swamp. Ironically, that was the last place the Vols power running game was seen alive against a top ten opponent back on Dec. 1, 2001 when Travis Stephens amassed 226 yards to spearhead UT's first victory in Gainesville in 30 years. The next week Tennessee's run game was throttled by LSU in the SEC title game and hasn't ever been fully reconstituted since.

It worked that day because the Vols had two wide receivers and a tight end that could defeat man coverage and pose a deep threat. They also had an offensive line that could seize control of the line of scrimmage. The combination of those two forces created running lanes that a nifty open field tailback could exploit for huge gains by leaving an uncovered defender grasping at air.

Tennessee has yet to assemble another group of receivers to match Stallworth, Washington and Witten after all three opted for an early exit to the NFL. (Stallworth after the 2001 campaign. Washington and Witten after the 2002 season.) Even in 2002, in which the Vols entered the season ranked No. 2 nationally and Witten and Washington were still there, Washington was only played three games due to injuries.

Without multiple receivers dangerous enough to draw double coverage or at least some help over the top, defenses maintained a numerical advantage as their safeties were able to walk up in run support. Taking away the run first has been the book on beating UT for most of the last decade.

However opponents have taken that approach one step further the last couple of years by taking away the intermediate to deep passing zones and giving up the short passes. Secondaries try to keep everything in front of them and slowly tighten the noose.

Last season Robert Meachem was able to turn short passes into big plays and, on occasion, beat press coverage deep. The lack of a receiver of his caliber has now allowed opponents to turn Tennessee into not just a pass-only team, but a team that can only complete short passes. It's hard to beat good opponents with those limitations, but your quarterback will have a high completion percentage.

Here's the top to bottom offensive ratings for the Tennessee-Florida 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. Further analysis to follow.

QUARTERBACKS (79) Under decidedly unfavorable circumstances Eric Ainge did what he could to keep UT close — completing 26 of 41 passes for 249 yards, one TD and one INT. He didn't take any sacks nor did he take any shots down field. Even if the Vols lack a deep threat they should be willing to throw deep at least a couple of times each game just to make opponents aware they'll take some shots. The Vols are getting time to pass deep and should take advantage since it could loosen up the defense. Jonathan Crompton completed 2 of 5 for 12 yards and a pick in mop-up duty. There's not a large enough sample to state anything definitively, but the sophomore appears less confident and comfortable than he did as a freshman.

RECEIVERS (64) UT's receivers dropped a few more than usual but were largely productive. Josh Briscoe had his best game to date with eight catches for 76 yards. Chris Brown scored the Vols only offensive TD on a 15-yard reception. Austin Rogers had Tennessee's biggest gain of the day with a 32-yard catch and Lucas Taylor had six receptions for 57 yards. Not all-star stuff but more sound than anybody had a right to expect off the spring game showing.

O-LINE (59) The offensive line wasn't overwhelmed by Florida's front as much as it was out numbered. It did a good job of protecting the passer but the inability to get any push in third and short and fourth down situations remains a concern. Every year we hear the O-line is going to be more physical. We're still waiting.

RUNNING BACKS (43) Three running backs gained 46 net yards in 19 carries. (Brent Vinson lost 9 yards on a reverse.) They added another 20 yards on 4 receptions. The most yards gained on those 23 touches was 10 on a catch by LaMarcus Coker. Just one broken tackle could make a big difference to that type of abysmal average. Remarkably the rushing total this year vs. the Gators was 47 yards higher than 2006.

OVERALL (59) Only time will tell how good Florida's defense is but this was clearly UT's worst game. The lack of a go-to receiver or a feature back are factors but the Vols do have more talent than they've shown to this point which provides some ray of hope the offense can improve.

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