Tennessee vs. Alabama: 10 Things We Learned in Vols' Loss
Tennessee's dream of reaching the pinnacle of SEC football was jump-started a week ago when it upset South Carolina, but those dreams came crashing back down to Earth after a 45-10 loss to top-ranked Alabama.
The Crimson Tide were in control from the opening kick, when speedster Christion Jones took the first play to midfield on a big return. Three plays later, Nick Saban's crew was in the end zone—a location they quickly became familiar with.
Despite the game getting out of hand early, the Vols were able to generate some success in the second half after going into halftime with a 35-0 deficit. But it wasn't nearly enough to test the top-ranked Tide, who looked to be in a different weight class than the Vols from the get-go.
The Vols' loss wasn't short on implications, as many storylines unfolded that will be followed closely throughout the rest of the season.
Here are the 10 biggest things I learned from the loss.
Steven Cook covered the Tennessee-Alabama game from the Bryant-Denny Stadium press box.
Pump the Brakes a Little
Don't get me wrong—the Vols made a statement in Neyland Stadium a week ago. But Saturday's game showed just how much growth is left for this team.
Butch Jones had Volunteer faithful drinking the orange Kool-Aid after the South Carolina win—and rightfully so—they beat a ranked foe for the first time in four years.
The next quarter they played ended in a 28-0 deficit.
All you have to do is say "Alabama week" to UT fans, and the excitement and promise comes to the surface, but that effect was amplified after the big win last weekend. Fans on Rocky Top believed—unjustifiable as it may be—that anything could happen in Tuscaloosa.
Then, the game played out just like it was supposed to on paper. The Vols' talented youngsters made a couple of plays, but the Alabama machine dominated things from the very beginning and showcased its depth and suffocating defense.
Tennessee isn't anywhere near being "back" when it gets annihilated on the road by its most bitter rival.
The fans are, undoubtedly, along for the ride, but Jones and the Vols have a long road getting back to prominence.
Joshua Dobbs May Be the Future
The Vols went into Saturday with two true freshmen quarterbacks who could still redshirt and exited with fans buzzing about the performance of one Joshua Dobbs.
Junior quarterback Justin Worley—who hurt his hand early last week against South Carolina before playing through it—was noticeably hampered by a wrapped thumb in the first half, and it played its part in a 35-0 halftime lead.
The dual-threat freshman quickly made an impression. He led the Vols on two scoring drives and connected on a couple of big passing plays, showcasing accuracy that Worley didn't in the game.
And for the first time all season, Tennessee's spread offense actually fit the personnel, as Dobbs used his feet to deceive Alabama's front seven and break off a couple of decent runs.
The true freshman didn't look like one, putting his head down and getting tough yards against, arguably, the scariest defense in college football.
Dobbs' performance resonated with Butch Jones, who said after the game that it "absolutely" warranted a discussion about him getting more playing time, per The Daily Beacon's David Cobb.
He didn't win the job just yet, but it was an impressive Tennessee debut for the young Dobbs.
Justin Worley Is a Gamer
Justin Worley only played the first half, coming out of the game with an injured hand that was noticeably affecting his game. But it wasn't a lack of effort or toughness by any means.
The Tide got to Worley early, and he came off the field holding his wrapped hand after each of the Vols' early drives. Then, he'd go back out and bury his head into an Alabama defender's chest.
Then, he'd throw the ball as far as he possibly could—and in some cases, completed those passes.
Worley's injury was, obviously, impacting his game. On his last throw—an interception that was returned 89 yards for a touchdown—he was the only Vol chasing the play before being leveled by a blocker.
Say what you will about Worley. Say that he's not the best quarterback on the roster or that he's not accurate or that he can't run.
But don't ever say he's not tough.
The Vols' Secondary Is Now Even More Depleted
Tennessee entered the season with an incredibly thin slew of defensive backs, but they'll face even more adversity stemming from Saturday's loss.
Safety Brian Randolph came out of the game early and didn't return, and the only other game-worthy safety not named LaDarrell McNeil was Byron Moore, who played much of the game.
However, Moore was seen leaving the field on crutches, according to The Daily Beacon's David Cobb.
Of course, neither of the three players performed well early on, being gashed by Alabama's speedy wideouts on a couple of deep balls from AJ McCarron early on.
Without Moore or Randolph, the Vols will likely have to start JaRon Toney, whose struggles in pass coverage have been easily noticeable.
If that's the case, expect potent offenses to pick on the Vols secondary even more so.
"The Red Team" Motivation Didn't Quite Work
Tennessee coaches and players relished talk of 'the red team' in practice this week in preparation for Alabama. The thought was that if they got caught up too much in the brand and name of their opponent, they'd write themselves off.
Well, that backfired.
Per B/R's own Marc Torrence on Twitter, it gave McCarron and the Tide all the motivation they needed to crush the Vols.
After calling the gesture "disrespectful," the two-time national champion stuck the dagger of the 45-10 loss even deeper.
"I wanted to score as many points as possible on them," McCarron said, per Torrence. "I didn't want to come out."
McCarron already owns the motivation of critics calling him a game manager and hearing people talk about how any quarterback could've led these teams to national titles. He didn't need more fire.
They may be just a red team, but this red team just so happens to be Alabama.
UT's Defense Is Still Vulnerable on the Outside
Whether it was Amari Cooper or T.J. Yeldon or Christion Jones or a handful of other Alabama players, the Vols were gashed, once again, by their opponents' best playmakers on the outside.
This weakness revealed itself immediately, as Cooper took an outside screen for a big gain on the Tide's second offensive play. But it was called back after a Tide penalty.
The very next play, they called the same exact thing to the other side. It resulted in a 54-yard Cooper touchdown. The Crimson Tide led the rest of the way.
Of course, that was only the start. Multiple times, Yeldon bounced out no-gainers to the outside and picked up huge chunks of yardage.
On one face-palming occasion, Jones found nothing while scampering to the right side of the field and quickly sprinted toward the opposite sideline. He ended up with a huge gain and set up another Alabama touchdown.
Some adjustments were made and cornerbacks Cam Sutton and Justin Coleman improved in this regard, but the weakness reared its ugly head yet again. And that should worry Vol fans.
Alabama Fans Listened to Their Master
UT fans surely couldn't relate to this ridiculous problem—I know more than a handful of Volunteer faithful who would camp out in Neyland Stadium for months if it meant national championships.
But boy, did Nick Saban call out his fans over the week.
Per ESPN.com news services, the Alabama head coach was unhappy with his fans leaving games early in the second half while his team built insurmountable leads. He apparently expects fans not to come if they don't decide to stay for the entire contest.
While the subject could be debated ad nauseam as to whether Saban is justified in calling out the fans, there's no doubt that the Crimson Tide faithful listened.
With the game seemingly in hand at halftime, hardly any seats were left vacant in Bryant-Denny Stadium and a noticeable exodus from the crowd didn't ensue until about four minutes left.
Saban got 60 minutes from most of his fans, whether it was because they listened to his words or because they couldn't get enough of watching Tennessee get pummeled.
The Vols Still Love Their Turnovers
Against a well-disciplined Alabama team, I wondered going in if Tennessee would fail to force a turnover for the first time all season.
It ended up being insignificant, but they got their turnover.
Already down, 28-0, heading into halftime, the Crimson Tide were knocking on the door of a five-touchdown lead when Kenyan Drake fumbled at the goal line, and the Volunteers recovered.
Of course, Tennessee would give it right back when Justin Worley threw a pick-six late in the half. But it's at least worth noting that the turnover streak continues.
The O-Line Can Pass Protect Against the Nation's Best
The Tennessee offensive line needed to dominate the line of scrimmage to give the Vols any chance, and they didn't.
But they did protect their quarterbacks.
Neither team recorded a sack in the contest, and while a couple of those instances can be attributed to quick feet from Worley or Dobbs, it mainly came from a blanket of blockers protecting them.
Multiple times, Tennessee's running backs—Rajion Neal, in particular—picked up blitzes quite well and prevented a big play in the UT backfield.
Obviously, it didn't have a huge impact on the scoreline, but it saved Worley from getting even more banged up and gave Dobbs room to make some plays.
Next Weekend Just Got a Bit Tougher
As if Tennessee's schedule wasn't tough enough entering the season, once-unranked Missouri is now No. 5 in the nation (pending Saturday's contest against South Carolina), and the Vols travel to Columbia next weekend to face them.
The Vols built plenty of momentum over the previous two weeks in an overtime loss to then-No. 6 Georgia and a win over then-No. 11 South Carolina, but both of those performances came at home.
On the road, Butch Jones and company just got smashed.
Of course, it was Alabama, which deserves an asterisk next to it, but Mizzou is building their own asterisk by quickly becoming one of the nation's best teams and a national championship contender.
Surely, Jones won't let his Vols lose sight of what they've built and won't let this loss deter their overall goal.
But going on the road and losing badly, with another tough test right after it, is a tough bargain.
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