South Alabama vs. Tennessee: 10 Things We Learned in Vols' Win
If you were looking for enjoyable football games to watch Saturday, Tennessee's 31-24 win over South Alabama wasn't one of them.
Facing a Sun Belt foe in the midst of a slate of tough matchups that included road losses to Oregon and Florida with a late-October trip to Alabama looming. Next up are home games against Georgia and South Carolina. Let's just say the Vols were expected to easily take care of business against the Jaguars.
They didn't exactly do that.
At the end of the day, Butch Jones' squad picked up its third win of the season. But the moral victories for UT fans come few and far between.
Let's take a look at the 10 things we learned from Tennessee's win over South Alabama.
QB Justin Worley Isn't Worthy of Starting
After being benched last weekend at Florida in favor of Nate Peterman, Worley was given the keys back to the offense for two reasons: Peterman's injury (via ESPN) and his replacement's overall ineffectiveness (five passing yards, four turnovers).
Things started out not so well for Tennessee against South Alabama, as the Vols had two three-and-outs to open the game. But after a couple of dominant scoring drives, it looked like Worley had his feet under him.
Then, he threw three interceptions against a Sun Belt defense, including two in the Jaguars' end zone that took points off the board.
On top of the turnover problem, the offense couldn't get going in the second half. Other than a scoring drive to open up the third quarter, the Vols were unable score in the final 30 minutes as South Alabama nearly inched its way back into the game.
Worley's struggles against Oregon and Florida can be overlooked, but there's no excuse for Saturday's performance against a team that an average UT quarterback should walk over.
Worley may be the best guy UT has at the position right now, but that says less about his own skill than it does the readiness of the QBs behind him.
Butch Jones Wasted Golden QB Opportunity
Just about the only chance Butch Jones had of figuring out whether one of his true freshman deserved to take the reins of the offense came against South Alabama.
With upcoming matchups against Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama, there's virtually no way Jones thrusts true freshmen Riley Ferguson or Josh Dobbs out on the field in conference play when he was reluctant to do so against a much inferior opponent.
Simply put, Worley displayed horrible decision-making at times against the Jaguars, and his passes were constantly off target. He gave his head coach every reason to explore other options, and yet Jones didn't seize the opportunity.
Perhaps Jones was afraid of Ferguson or Dobbs making things worse in a game that had not yet been decided. But after five games, the head coach has to be running out of reasons to keep his junior quarterback at the helm.
With the upcoming schedule, Jones may have wasted his best opportunity yet to figure out what to do at the quarterback position for the remainder of 2013.
Run. The. Ball.
Tennessee abandoned the run on first and second down against Florida last weekend, forcing a duo of incapable quarterbacks to convert on third down.
And it showed as the offense put up a grand total of 10 points, with the lone touchdown drive coming primarily on the ground.
When the Vols went back to the ground on Saturday, they had tons of success. Rajion Neal rushed for a career-high 169 yards on 25 carries, Marlin Lane added five touches for 66 yards.
Oh, and did I mention both rushers broke off 50-plus-yard gains and got into the end zone?
The Vols have one of the best offensive lines in the country, though the one place it has struggled is in pass protection. All the more reason to pound the rock.
The Vols Defense Loves Its Takeaways
The seven-takeaway mauling of Western Kentucky earlier this season wasn't a fluke.
The Vols forced three more turnovers against South Alabama—all three of which were interceptions.
The first two came off deflected passes, but the third and game-deciding one came from defensive back Brian Randolph, who showed great pursuit in picking off a pass into the end zone that could've tied the game.
It remains to be seen whether the Vols offense is capable of making plays, so if you're a UT fan and are looking for a big play, you had better hope the defense is on the field.
Teams Will Continue to Pick on Cameron Sutton
You'll not find a more talented true freshman on the Vols roster than Cam Sutton, who has started every game this season.
But when opponents have decided to go deep on the Vols this season, it's typically come against Sutton. Teams undoubtedly have circled him as a target, probably because of his inexperience.
He's done well with his opportunity—he had a pick-six against Western Kentucky and a fumble recovery against Florida—but the Vols better get used to teams picking on him when they face top-tier quarterbacks like Aaron Murray, Connor Shaw or A.J. McCarron.
Referees Like to Get in on the Action, Too
It was an ugly game in the second half, so much so that even the referees thought they could play.
This play came on South Alabama's final drive, as they looked poised to get into the end zone and tie the ball game up.
Who knows what could've happened if the ref hadn't stepped in the way Cris Dinham.
South Alabama Should Worry Sun Belt Foes
South Alabama turned the heads of many around Knoxville last weekend then they came back to beat Western Kentucky—a foe that was expected to give Tennessee fits earlier this season.
They backed it up Saturday, racking up nearly 400 yards of total offense, including 257 through the air.
At one time, they had a 1st-and-goal with a chance to tie the game with under two minutes left.
After being projected to finish seventh in the Sun Belt this season, the Jags may have awoken the masses by nearly beating an SEC team.
Vols Need More Playmakers at WR
One huge area for concern heading into the season was the skill positions, especially receiver, where the Vols lost a slew of pass-catchers from a season ago to the NFL.
So far this season, highly touted freshman receivers Marquez North and Josh Smith haven't been able to separate from defenders and make many of the "splash" plays that Jones constantly demands.
Against a Sun Belt foe, there's no excuse for the best performance on the stat sheet to read "three catches, 50 yards."
It's not all on the receivers, but part of Worley's struggles can be attributed to the lack of playmaking ability his targets have shown at times this season. This was especially true against South Alabama.
Injuries to Devrin Young, Johnathan Johnson and Alton "Pig" Howard have decimated the position, but the Vols have plenty of young talent on the outside, and they need those few guys to step up.
Corey Vereen Is a Monster
No true freshman is more talked about than Corey Vereen—who racked up four sacks in the spring game before a training camp injury sidelined him for the first three games of 2013.
He made his college debut against Florida last weekend and was in the backfield early and often, proving to be the most effective pass-rusher on a defensive line that sorely needs help generating pressure.
Vereen was at it even more so on Saturday, pressuring South Alabama quarterback Ross Metheny. If not for Metheny's quick feet, Vereen would have had himself a couple of sacks on the day.
He may very well receive MVP honors for pressuring Metheny on 4th-and-goal late, causing a game-deciding interception.
The Vols will need more of the same from Vereen if they have any chance of giving Georgia or South Carolina a game.
Tennessee Has a Long Way to Go
There's no doubt that the future is bright on Rocky Top, as the Vols begin to revitalize their program with the fourth-best recruiting class in the nation (per 247 Sports).
But that doesn't mean anything for this season.
The immediate future looks to be much more painful, with a sputtering offense led by a quarterback who cannot seem to make the right decisions often enough.
Defensively there has been a lot of improvement from a forgettable 2012, but that side of the ball for Tennessee has been exposed by even average offenses like Florida and South Alabama. Against some of the SEC's elite, this inconsistent defense will be exploited even more.
Jones has gotten the fanbase behind him with his "brick by brick" slogan and tireless work ethic, but Saturday showed that many more bricks need to be laid before Tennessee will be able to truly call games like South Alabama a "breather."