That's a rugged road but it's not murders row especially if the Vols can approximate the level of play they exhibited against No. 12 Georgia. Certainly there doesn't appear to be any future foes the quality of Cal and Florida on the slate. Unless, of course, UT gets to the title tilt and draws LSU.
But that's putting the heart before the course. In truth the picture in the conference, and indeed the nation can, and seemingly does, change dramatically every week. A big point in Tennessee's favor is the fact their principle competition for the SEC East — Florida, South Carolina and Kentucky — all catch the No. 1 ranked Tigers.
These matters will be grist for the proverbial mill as this zany season continues to unfold. Of greater importance to Big Orange fans is that there will be discussion of big games and high stakes in October instead of merely speculation about coaching changes.
By vaulting themselves into contention with a dynamic performance against a good Georgia squad, the Vols have given their fans something to feel good about, something positive to talk about and something to point to with pride.
For the most part the offense has play well this season, but this was the first time the defense resembled the attacking, swarming, pressuring, hard-hitting units that have come defined Tennessee football.
Of course this performance only adds to the mystery of how the Vols could lose by 39 points to a Florida team that has lost two of its three games since and was taken to the brink by an Ole Miss team that is the worst in the SEC.
Here are the top to bottom defensive ratings for the Tennessee-Georgia 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. Each score will be followed by a brief comment. Further analysis to follow.
DEFENSIVE LINE (96) By far the highest grade this group has scored this season and it's certainly earned as the Vols held a Georgia ground game which averaged 178.2 yards per outing entering Saturday's SEC battle, to 69 yards in 25 carries for an average of 2.8 yards per attempt and no touchdowns. Demonte Bolden and J.T. Mapu stepped up their games, shut down the interior run and freed the linebackers to make tackles. Mapu had the Vols only sack and Bolden recorded four solo stops. Walter Fisher and Dan Williams provided quality minutes in back-up roles at tackle. The ends did an excellent job of turning runners into the teeth of the defense. Xavier Mitchell (four stops) and Wes Brown (three stops) were particularly active. Robert Ayers had UT's only QB hurry. Bottom line: If the D-line doesn't do its job no other defenders can effectively do theirs.
LINEBACKERS (93) Rico McCoy and Jerod Mayo topped Tennessee's tackle chart with 11 stops each, while Ryan Karl contributed four along with a couple of pass breakups. The best overall job this season of reading, reacting and tackling. Still not much in the way of depth, which could be a concern down the road, but the first unit was first class. SECONDARY (90) Georgia wasn't the best passing team the Vols have seen this season. In fact, the Bulldogs ranked No. 8 in the SEC just ahead of Vanderbilt. Still UT's DBs did a superb job of limiting the type of big plays that have plagued the team prior to Saturday. Jonathan Hefney bounced back from a slow start this season with an interception. Eric Berry had four stops while Marcelous Johnson, Brent Vinson and Hefney had two solo stops each. The secondary tackled better and it was a good sign that they weren't forced to make as many tackles in this game as it has in others this fall. Even the Bulldogs biggest gain of the day (26 yards) was an example of excellent receiving and not poor coverage. Vinson actually had Demiko Goodman wrapped in a blanket and he still made the catch.
OVERALL (94) This was Tennessee defense as fans have come to know it under the direction of John Chavis. Fast, passionate, aggressive and fundamentally sound. If this is a breakthrough, as opposed to a one-game anomaly, the Vols can make a run at the SEC title.
SPECIAL TEAMS (88) Tennessee came away with an edge in special teams play thanks to a blocked punt by Ellix Wilson, and Britton Colquitt knocking a couple of kickoffs into the end zone in his first action in that role. The Vols didn't have a return of longer than 16 yards and Georgia didn't have one longer than 21 yards. Punting was virtually even — 42.5 for UGA and 42.0 for UT. There were no field goals, missed extra points or turnovers in this phase of the game. Tennessee will take that kind of exchange against Georgia anytime. Special mention to the Vols Nevin McKenzie who had four solo tackles in kick and punt coverage.