Auburn's shred-by-spread offense exposed Tennessee's football team for what it is: one of the nation's worst major conference defenses at stopping the read-option.
Saturday's 55-23 loss proved the Vols are at least the SEC team with the furthest to go in terms of shutting down the spread style of offense that's sweeping college football.
UT allowed 444 rushing yards on an average of 8.4 yards per carry. A week after being gashed by Missouri's spread-option, the Vols regressed further.
It was Tennessee's most embarrassing defensive performance of the season, even surpassing an Oregon game where the Ducks ran around the Vols at will. At least Oregon had to pass. Auburn attempted only seven throws the entire game.
A league-worst rush defense certainly didn't appear to bode well for UT going against the SEC's top rushing offense. But the magnitude by which the Tigers dominated on the ground was harrowing for a program that three weeks ago looked like it was storming back to relevance.
Auburn's beating provided a third consecutive reminder to the Vols that they're not ready to consistently play with the SEC's top talent. The Vols won't compete for anything in the conference until they learn how to stop the spread.
It's a problem that simply cannot be fixed this year. It's difficult to blame scheme when the players on the field aren't touching ball carriers until they're five or six yards downfield.
Tennessee needs all the recruiting help it can get on defense, and the Vols can't sign a class big enough to fill all the holes.
Butch: 'vivid, vivid' difference in speed today— Patrick Brown (@patrickbrownTFP) November 9, 2013
Those speed issues were thorough throughout every level of UT's defense. Auburn easily navigated anything the Vols threw at it.
All the Tigers had to do was hand off or have their quarterback keep the ball. They rarely stopped until they were celebrating in the end zone.
The onslaught was a familiar refrain. After Alabama pounded the Vols into oblivion three weeks ago, both sets of Tigers have run around and through UT's defense. Auburn just did it better than anybody else so far.
Junior signal-caller Nick Marshall had 14 carries for 214 yards and a couple of touchdowns. Running back Tre Mason added 117 more and three scores.
In an 18-point win over Arkansas a week ago, the Tigers threw just nine passes. They didn't even need that many against Tennessee, which was simply inferior athletically and especially speed-wise.
Butch: Everyone wants to create one-on-one matchups in space. Auburn does it differently from most teams. And it does it really really well.— Wes Rucker (@wesrucker247) November 9, 2013
Auburn's vaunted offensive line crushed Tennessee at the first level on runs up the middle. Any time the Tigers raced for the edge, they got it. The Vols continue to fail miserably at containment.
Worse, safeties LaDarrell McNeil and Brian Randolph played as poorly as either has since coming to UT. They got sucked in numerous times, allowing AU huge gains. Three times, it took the Tigers just two plays on touchdown-scoring drives.
Now, Tennessee sits at 4-6 with remaining games at home against Vanderbilt and on the road against Kentucky being must-wins in order to get a bowl game.
Unfortunately for the Vols, both teams incorporate spread elements into their offenses. Though neither team is as advanced, adept or athletic as Oregon, Mizzou or Auburn, both could give UT fits in space.
This team has only started scraping its way out of the talent vortex that was created by the recruiting misses and attrition under Lane Kiffin and Derek Dooley. UT coach Butch Jones said Saturday he has his finger on the pulse of UT's needs.
Those glaring deficiencies begin on defense, and the gap can only be filled by recruiting speed.
Butch: 'You can write this down: We will get it done.' later: 'If it kills me, it kills me. But we're gonna get it done.'— Patrick Brown (@patrickbrownTFP) November 9, 2013
Butch: "I know exactly where we are right now ... and what it's gonna take to get it better."— Wes Rucker (@wesrucker247) November 9, 2013