That was before a meltdown – by the coaching staff.
UT's coaches didn't do enough to help the players during a mystifying 41-17 loss to a less-talented Alabama team.
They didn't scheme to take away receiver DJ Hall. They didn't adjust to stop Alabama from running to the left side. They didn't help their two helpless cornerbacks. They didn't go for it twice near midfield, once trailing by 10 points in the second half. They didn't play their second-best running back, Montario Hardesty.
And the team didn't respond to adversity for the third time in eight games.
Tennessee's 24-point loss to Alabama was just as embarrassing as the 39-point loss at Florida. Why? Because Alabama doesn't have as many athletes as Florida and UT was supposed to be an improving team.
Moreover, Alabama suspended five players before kickoff – two offensive line starters and a backup running back.
The Vols had defeated Georgia and Mississippi State by double figures. They have found their run game and shown an ability to stop the run. They were in control of their destiny after two Florida losses.
Then, they lay an egg – an ostrich-size egg.
If you can't beat this Nick Saban Alabama team, when will you?
That was the question UT fans asked after the Vols were routed at Florida last month. It's a legitimate question.
Tennessee seemed to be fixing its problems after the Florida debacle. But when they crop up again this deep into the season, you figure those problems won't go away.
That's why I don't think UT has a chance to win the East. The defense simply isn't good enough. It's the worst Vol defense I've seen since 1988.
Alabama had 510 yards – 363 passing as John Parker Wilson hit 32 of 46 passes for 363 yards and three touchdowns. If he hadn't missed four or five open receivers, he would have had a 400-yard game.
Parker won't play that well again, you say? Maybe not. But maybe his career day was the result of UT's porous defense. Wes Carroll, a Mississippi State freshman, had a career day against UT. Southern Miss' quarterback had a career day against UT.
See a pattern?
Alabama has a good offense, but it couldn't score 41 points on Vanderbilt or Georgia or Ole Miss. It had 41 on Tennessee and four scoring drives of at least 75 yards. It ran 85 plays to UT's 55 – in part because UT couldn't make a third-down stop and the offense couldn't move the ball in the second half.
UT knew going into the game it had to take away Hall, Alabama's all-time leading receiver who had caught 17 passes in two previous seasons against the Vols. So UT's brain trust came up with a scheme that held Hall to a school-record 13 catches for 185 yards and two touchdowns and a two-point conversion reception. Hall had 10 catches in the first half. He has 30 catches against UT the past three years.
How can you let Alabama's best offensive weapon continue to burn you?
I wonder if the secondary UT doesn't have but could – Inky Johnson, Antonio Gaines, Demetrus Morely and Roshaun Fellows – would be better than this group?
The secondary wasn't the only concern. Alabama was without two starting blockers, but Terry Grant gained 106 yards on 26 carries.
I'm convinced Saban tried the on-side kick to open the game to give his team a spark after the news of the five suspensions.
I'm also convinced UT coach Phillip Fulmer played too close to the vest. Facing fourth-and-1 with about 8 minutes left in the first half, trailing 17-14, Fulmer punted. UT had controlled the line of scrimmage for the most part, but Fulmer didn't gamble.
You could excuse that, but early in the second half, with UT down 27-17, the Vols faced third-and-2 at the UT 48. Offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe called for a short pass. It was deflected. Fulmer punted.
First of all, UT should have run on third-and-2, treating it like four-down territory. Secondly, Fulmer should have gone for it.
UT's defense was playing so horribly, you had no reason to think it would suddenly stone Alabama's offense.
It didn't. On both occasions, Alabama scored, the first time on a 16-play touchdown drive and the second on a field goal for a 30-17 lead.
``I was really disappointed in our execution,'' Fulmer said.
Fulmer should have also been disappointed in his team's fight. After Erik Ainge threw an interception to open the second half, the offense went stale, failing to score in the second half.
It was another example of UT not handling adversity. After Penn State returned a fumble for a touchdown against the Vols in the Outback Bowl, the Vols waved a white towel. After Florida returned a fumble for a touchdown for a 35-20 lead earlier this year, the Vols packed it in.
That's not a good sign for a team competing for the East Division title.
Of course, Fulmer is right about the lack of execution. And UT had a season-high 11 penalties, seven in the orange zone, according to Fulmer.
Fulmer said the defense ``didn't show up'' against Alabama.
No it didn't. The Vols are now giving up 32.3 points and 406.7 yards per game. That is very un-John Chavis like. And the future doesn't look bright. A
lthough South Carolina scored just six points in a loss to Vanderbilt, you can bet Steve Spurrier will find holes in UT's secondary. You can bet Arkansas will attack a suspect run defense. And you can bet Kentucky will try to exploit both.
That vulnerability is why UT will lose again.
The defense may work like heck in practice, but they're playing like hell.