Game nine is far enough along in a season to see progress in any new offense, but Tennessee is showing signs of recession which can't be a good sign for UT's coaching staff as it is presently constituted.
Further illustration of UT's dilemma can be found in a total lack of adequate protection for the quarterback. Against South Carolina the Vols O-line, which returned seven of its top eight players from last year, surrendered six sacks compared to a total of five in 14 games from all of last season.
Given the glut of offensive deficiencies it's not surprising UT suffered its first loss in Columbia since 1992, or that it currently has one of the five worst seasons in terms of losses in school history. One more loss would match the most in ever at Tennessee.
It's an ineptitude that is almost mind boggling given the number or returning players from an offense that averaged 32.5 points, 21 first downs and 402 total yards per game in 2007. The Vols returned their top three running backs, their top three wide receivers as well as the same five O-linemen starters that finished 2007.
Certainly the Vols aren't getting the same level of performance from any of those positions that they got last season. The drop off at quarterback has been much of the focus but in truth any quarterback would struggle behind a line that can't pick up simple blitzes and stunts or establish any semblance of a ground game.
The offensive line is more a collection of players than a well coordinated unit. The degree of penetration being allowed is disrupting timing and preventing the Vols from gaining any rhythm — an element as essential to a running attack as the passing game. The receivers haven't been able to get off the line consistently or gain enough separation to present a viable target. Despite the constant pressure being exerted by opponents on UT's QBs the Vols rarely counter with screens, draws or delays.
Conversely Tennessee's defense while not dominating has been solid. The front seven has been the most pleasant surprise of a season devoid of good surprises. If John Chavis' stop troops could ever play with a lead they would be much more effective. As it is opponents are gaining an early advantage and running out the clock. Such conservative tactics limit how aggressive the defense can be and puts the pressure back on UT's offense to prove itself. Nine games into 2008 campaign it is still trying to prove itself.
Here's a breakdown from top to bottom of UT's units along with grades for their respective performance against South Carolina. Grades are allocated from 1 to 10.
DEFENSIVE LINE (9.3) One of the best performances of the season. South Carolina native Robert Ayers (7 tackles) is enjoying a career year best year as is Dan "Dancing Bear" Williams (4 stops) on a bad ankle. Gerald Williams had a good night at DE with 5 stops and Bolden equaled that output at tackle.
DEFENSIVE BACKS (9.1) Outside of some passes completed off scrambles the Vols shut down the a talented group of wide receivers, prevented big plays and contributed the biggest play of the game for the Vols on a 48-yard interception return by incomparable sophomore star Eric Berry.
SPECIAL TEAMS (8.6) This score is weighted heavily by Britton Colquitt's night averaging 45.3 per punt on nine punts with a 43.6 net average on what . He is a genuine offensive weapon with an NFL leg that is getting quite a workout since his return from suspension against Georgia.
LINEBACKERS (8.4) Another good night by a unit that has shown steady improvement. The trio of Rico McCoy (game high 9 tackles), Ellix Wilson (6 tackles) and Nevin McKenzie (4 stops) is quick, active and very physical to be so undersized. Adam Myers-White is providing quality minutes off the bench.
QUARTERBACKS (7.7) Overall the Vols didn't get the production they would have liked from their signal callers but after six sacks, half which came from untouched pass rushers. Nick Stephens first INT was most costly. Jonathan Crompton saw his first service since Auburn and displayed a strong arm.
RECEIVERS (6.7) Big game for Austin Rogers who had three catches for 72 yards with a long of 49. Lucas Taylor had a catch for 27 yards, but the rest of the wideouts contributed just six catches for 31 yards and no TDs. A drop by Quinton Hancock killed a promising drive.
RUNNING BACKS (6.4) Outside of Arian Foster, who had 14 carries for 56 yards and the Vols only touchdown along with 3 catches for 33 yards with a long of 27, no one contributed much of anything. Montario Hardesty didn't play and Lennon Creer has 9 yards on three carries but also fumbled the ball after a short reception that S.C. turned into a TD.
OFFENSIVE LINE (5.0) On balance this may be the worst performing O-line Fulmer has ever fielded at UT. Under performing, underachieving, underwhelming and under scrutiny this group doesn't seem to be in the same play book much less on the same page.
OVERALL (6.8)) The defense gets an 8.9 and the offense (excuse this term) scores a 6.0. In this case the whole does not equal the sum of the parts.