A week removed from its signature win, the Tennessee football team got a sobering dose of reality Saturday.
The Vols still have a whole lot of rebuilding to do if they want to compete with the mighty Alabama Crimson Tide.
UA has been dynamic in recent weeks since starting the season sluggishly, and all its weapons were on full display against Tennessee. Talent, speed, size, strength, physicality—everything was superior to UT in a 45-10 win.
Alabama is playing really strong football right now, and UT can't blame this one on a post-victory hangover. The Vols were simply outclassed in every facet of the game.
This was even more demoralizing, more thorough, than the three consecutive 31-point losses under Derek Dooley's watch because it squelched the considerable momentum UT had built during the previous two games.
But those previous two UT opponents—Georgia and South Carolina—paled in comparison to the machine UA placed on the field at Bryant-Denny Stadium. The Tide piled up 479 yards and did everything it wanted to offensively.
With Alabama already ahead by three touchdowns early in the second quarter, a play by UA receiver Christion Jones personified the talent discrepancy.
He took an end-around all the way to the right side of the field where he encountered a horde of Vols. Jones then simply reversed field and ran past everybody for a 20-yard gain to the UT 20-yard line.
Teams simply aren't supposed to do that against an SEC opponent. A play such as that proved while Jones' Vols are fighting to make it to a bowl game this season, they aren't yet ready to compete with a team as sturdily built as Bama.
Knoxville's WATE reporter Jim Wogan seasonably summarized Tennessee's first-half defensive performance:
Last week's upset of South Carolina was a mark of overachievement and a triumph for Butch Jones' rebuilding project. This week showed the rebuild is far from complete.
Tennessee had freshmen all over the field, including quarterback Joshua Dobbs, who burned his redshirt when starter Justin Worley couldn't return in the second half after re-aggravating a thumb injury he suffered last week.
Dobbs finished 5-of-12 for 79 yards in the second half and also looked adept running the read-option, finishing with 19 yards on three carries. Those numbers would have been better if not for some drops.
Most importantly, he was unfazed by Alabama's defensive pressure and looked less rattled than Worley. He made a strong statement to start in next week's game against Missouri.
The emergence of Dobbs and the continued improvement of receiver Marquez North (four catches, 87 yards) were the only bright spots of a dismal day for the Vols.
Young talent, like that coupled with a continuation of strong recruiting, is the only way they can close the wide gulf between themselves and Bama.
UT's current recruiting class is very stout, ranked third by 247Sports, second by Rivals and can grow all the way to 30 prospects. Given how Nick Saban has tiered depth through top-five class after top-five class, it's going to take at least a couple of these elite classes to close the gap.
Unfortunately for UT, Bama's 2014 class is ranked first on both services.
Where UA's top-ranked classes have stuck around, thrived and developed, Tennessee's haven't. Not only have the Vols endured four coaches in six seasons and had inferior recruiting classes to the Tide, they've also suffered attrition.
Those talent gaps glared Saturday. UT just ran into a crimson Skil saw and could do absolutely nothing about it.
Numbers like that are why Alabama is at the top of the national hierarchy and why the Tide is expected to be in the BCS National Championship Game yet again. Tennessee is just simply hoping to make a bowl, which would be an improvement from the previous two seasons.
The only thing Saban had to worry about Saturday was if Bama fans would stick around for all four quarters. If they were thinking like Jay Bilas, they probably did.
Those who stuck around saw more of the same domination in the second half. Though Alabama didn't keep the pedal pushed, the Tide added a 98-yard touchdown drive just to prove it hadn't gone to sleep.
Now, the Vols have to regroup in time to travel to Missouri and come home to play Auburn afterward. Much like UT had to do after a blowout loss to Oregon, it has to forget this happened and move on.
The Vols can take solace in this: Nobody will be as physical, deep and talented as Alabama.