Tennessee Football: 10 Things We Learned from Loss to Mississippi State
Tennessee came out swinging and took a four-point lead after answering Mississippi State's opening field goal with a touchdown.
After that, it was a matter of Mississippi State extending the lead to 14 and Tennessee alternating between three- and 10-point deficits.
There were at least 10 things we learned about Tennessee as they fell to the Mississippi State Bulldogs.
Join me as I take you through the learning experience that was Week 7 for the Volunteers.
*Stats from ESPN.com
Tennessee Has Defense...
While the Volunteer defense did not play well in the first half, it almost completely made up for it in the second half.
After Mississippi State's missed field goal in the third quarter, Tennessee's defense reeled off a forced fumble and four straight punts on the Bulldogs' next five possessions. That gave the Tennessee offense ample opportunity not only to take the lead, but to ice the game early in the fourth quarter.
While the game wasn't won by the defense, the Vols' defense didn't lose the game either.
More on the negative aspects of the defense later in the show.
The Mississippi State Bulldogs ate the Volunteers for breakfast in the first half. Some credit goes to Tyler Russell for making some genuine NFL-quality throws, but there were Tennessee defenders within six inches of almost all of those throws.
That wouldn't be so bad if they were six inches away with outstretched arms, but they had their elbows almost contacting their own ribs. Reaching out to deflect the passes could have saved at least two touchdowns in the first half alone.
The defense is plagued by fundamental failure. Between the lack of field awareness in the secondary and the lack of tackling fundamentals in the first level of the defense, Tennessee couldn't put together a single stop in the first half.
While this is partially the players' fault, the ultimate culpability is on the positional coaches.
They will be featured in the next slide.
The first failure on the coaching staff falls on the positional coaches. As mentioned in the previous slide, there were defenders within arm's reach of the controlling majority of completed passes.
Not only that, there were defenders touching Bulldogs all night. Running backs, scrambling quarterbacks and screen receivers wearing maroon were grabbed by Volunteers repeatedly. The Vols failed to wrap them up and failed to bail out by grabbing legs and tripping up the ball-carriers.
That completely falls on the positional coaches. There's no way that all those FBS football players were all executing that badly all on their own. There are issues at the foundation of their development that were on display tonight.
Inside linebackers are the responsibility of the first-year defensive coordinator, and the outside linebackers (the guys who are supposed to blow through holes and eat up opposing offenses) are the responsibility of a graduate assistant. I think we all know who shouldn't get an "A" in Internship I.
Positional coaches need to be put on notice by Derek Dooley, because they aren't the ones who will be fired first if these issues aren't fixed.
If you have the 10th-ranked passing attack and the 59th-ranked rushing attack, which one do you use?
If you're Tennessee, you lean on your rushing attack. At the end of the game, Bray had gone 13-of-24 for 148 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. That's over five yards per attempt and over 10 yards per completion.
Why were there only 24 passes attempted?
The answer is that there were 34 rushing attempts by the Vols for a total of 213 yards on the ground and two touchdowns. So, your passing game produced an equal number of scores with only 75 percent of the yardage.
The Volunteers are far more effective through the air than on the ground, and the guy calling the shots was the only person in the stadium that acted like he didn't know that.
He has a resume, so he may not get called out for what happened tonight by anyone other than yours truly.
He should, though.
As mentioned earlier, there were defenders within inches of the vast majority of Mississippi's successful plays. That means the Volunteers were in the correct configuration for the majority of the game.
While there were a few blown plays called by the defensive coordinator, the Volunteers were in position to make plays for almost the entire game. Mississippi State's offense was clearly outmatched by Tennessee's defense—the execution was just completely absent.
This is Sal Sunseri's first year at UT, and he will be heavily scrutinized next year. His defensive scheme should be more solidified at that time.
As for his performance as defensive play-caller against the Bulldogs, it was solid. Not perfect, but solid.
Dooley's Probably Gone
Derek Dooley needs to have a "meeting of the minds" in the locker room with nobody but his staff members. Dooley needed two years just to fix the mess Lane Kiffin created with his departure.
After those two years, he needed to be given the normal three- to four-year time frame within which to create real success.
Dooley lovers have him on a five- to six-year plan from arrival to Tennessee's first SEC championship. Personally, I had him going to Atlanta in the 2013 season, whether he wins that one or not.
Now I don't even think he'll be at UT in 2013.
Dooley is mortified any time that things aren't executed perfectly, and you could see that in the coaches' box tonight. That's the guy you want in charge of your team. You want the guy who will go home and assign blame where it belongs and hold people accountable for their jobs.
You also want to give a guy a solid staff instead of hiring a bunch of new people and expecting him to train them during one offseason. Many of Dooley's subordinates haven't even been at UT as long as he has.
On a bright note, if Dooley is going to be canned, Kirby Smart will likely be a candidate for his replacement. Coming from Alabama, Smart will be able to step in and build on the foundation that Dooley has built with minimal growing pains.
In the meantime, remember that Dooley took the mess that no one wanted to clean up, and this "hot seat" situation is exactly why no one wanted it.
Tyler Bray Needs to Be Unleashed
Justin Hunter had two receptions, one for 26 yards and the other for 15. Zach Rogers had three receptions for a total of 35 yards. Cordarrelle Patterson rounded out UT's top three with two receptions for 25 yards himself.
Tyler Bray needs to be turned loose. He tagged Georgia for 281 yards through the air while the Vols only put out 197 on the ground. He is one of the most lethal quarterbacks in the nation, and the Vols could have ridden his arm to a win tonight.
Forget the play-calling from the sidelines, and forget whose fault it is that he didn't pass more tonight. This guy needs to know that when he's "X" points down with "Y" minutes left in the game, he can do whatever he wants.
He needs to be given blanket permission to go out there and bring the team a win. Even if he fails miserably, what's the worst that could happen?
If you're worried about Tennessee losing games, you shouldn't be. The Vols are already losing games in the SEC. At least this way, Bray would bring you wins in between those losses.
He could have posted a "W" tonight.
In fact, he almost did.
Cordarrelle Patterson Sould Be the Go-to Guy on Offense
Cordarrelle Patterson almost took this game over in the second half for the Vols. He had three rushes in the game for a total of 57 yards, caught two passes for another 25 yards and had a 98-yard kickoff return to the house.
He's an offensive player, so "Honey Badger II" is an ill-fitting nickname, but he could be called the "Lion."
After all, doesn't the King of the Jungle have a "tenacious offense"?
Patterson amassed 180 all-purpose yards on the night, and he was only hit twice in the receiving game. What would happen if he were hit closer to 10 times?
Exactly, now you see the success that Tennessee is so close to having. It's just a matter of organizing the skills that are on the field at any given time.
Heart and Soul
There were so many opportunities to hang up the cleats and walk away during this game. When Mississippi State took a 14-point lead and the Vols defense still couldn't find an answer, nobody would have blamed them for losing faith.
Nobody would have blamed them for chalking it up and lying down after closing the gap to three points for a second time only to see it slip to 10 points yet again.
Nobody would have blamed Tennessee for giving up on itself, when there were fans out there who had already given up as well.
However, the Vols did not give up. They kept fighting to the bitter end.
Even when the game seemed lost, the defense still stepped out and forced a second, third and fourth punt in a row. Even when the offense failed to convert drives to points on the first Bulldog punt, the Vols defense didn't let up.
This team has a heart and soul that 122 of the 124 FBS teams would gladly trade for on any given Saturday. Don't ever forget that, Tennessee faithful. It's a rare treat to watch a fight like what you saw in Week 7.
Tennessee Is Coming
Tennessee is coming, just like Mississippi State. State fielded a true SEC defense for years without an offense to go with it. This year alone, the Bulldogs have ridden a slightly above-average offense to a 6-0 start.
They didn't need much to go from the bottom of the SEC to a potential first-place finish in the SEC West.
Tennessee is in the same boat. Almost all the tools are in the shed at UT.
While it may feel like the Vols are years away from success, there is still every reason to believe that Missouri, Vanderbilt and Kentucky will get logged as wins this year.
Yes, it absolutely sucks to be beaten by every ranked team you play for three straight years. There's no sugar-coating that. Kiffin recruited players to suit his system, gave a bunch of players hope for the future and then got the phone call that nobody thought was ever coming.
He left the program in shambles, but the Vols are competitive again. Vanderbilt will fall to Tennessee in regulation this year, not overtime. Kentucky will fall in regulation by a lot more than the three points it won by last year. Missouri will not stand up to the team that Tennessee will field on Nov. 10.
Tennessee is coming, and everyone knows it. They just won't admit it to your face. Tennessee has been on a steady climb for the last three years. The issue is that the program started so low back in '10 that it took three years just to get back to "competitive."
I know this is not a sexy stance on the issue, but it's true. Alabama saw 17 years with zero national championships and only one conference title.
It happens to everyone. Just ask Notre Dame how long it's been since the Irish were 6-0.