Tennessee had been developing a reputation as a doormat of the SEC's East Division. Those days may very well be fading into the fog of memory.
The Volunteers dispatched a very good Utah State team 38-7 on Sunday evening in front of the first Neyland Stadium sellout crowd in seven years. The 102,000 fans in attendance were treated to one of the best, most complete Vols performances in recent memory.
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The success (or failure) of Tennessee in 2014 will likely start and end with quarterback Justin Worley. On Sunday night, Worley completed 27 of his 38 pass attempts for 273 yards. Three of those throws went for scores, and 10 Vols receivers combined to give Worley his 273 yards.
Our final grade, however, is just shy of a perfect "A" because of a few drops. Worley also took a little bit of time to settle in, underthrowing a number of passes. Were it not for these few miscues, the score could have been even more lopsided.
If there was one aspect of the Vols offense with which we were less than impressed, it had to be the run game. Seven Vols combined for 39 carries and just 110 yards, or a meager 2.8 yards per carry.
That came against a Utah State defense that lost its top linebacker during the evening, and they still couldn't find much room to run.
With the passing explosion, Tennessee didn't really need to lean on the running game. Against some SEC defenses, however, it will. This has to be a point of concern for the coaching staff moving forward.
Another bright spot for the Vols was the pass defense. Utah State quarterback Chuckie Keeton is no slouch, but the Vols were able to completely shut him down.
As the game wore on, dropped passes became the rule of the day as the Aggies receiving corps became acutely aware of any Tennessee defender closing in for the hit. The dreaded "alligator arms" took over, and Aggie receivers spent as much time looking in the direction of the next big hit as they did looking the football into their hands.
A.J. Johnson and Cameron Sutton both chipped in with an interception against Utah State, and Johnson had several more pass deflections.
The Vols secondary is fast. Really fast. Opposing SEC quarterbacks will have a difficult time fitting footballs into the brief holes that do appear, and points will be at a premium this season against Tennessee.
The young front seven for Tennessee was one of the more surprising groups of the evening. The Vols secondary looked so good all evening in part because it knew what was coming next; the passing game for Utah State was completely ineffective, thanks to some great, athletic play from the defensive line for Tennessee.
Utah State had just 100 yards rushing on the evening, averaging 4.2 yards per carry. The Vols were also successful at keeping the Aggies out of the end zone on the ground.
Special teams are sometimes hard to grade, especially when a team doesn't bother to return punts. Despite the number of punts Utah State kicked away (eight), Tennessee fair caught or allowed Utah State to down all of them.
Tennessee returned two kickoffs for 17 and 18 yards.
So, our relatively low mark comes thanks to Aaron Medley's field-goal attempts—if you can call the first one an honest attempt.
The miss was so bad, so horribly bad, it was almost comical. OK, we shouldn't be too hard on the young freshman kicking his first field goal of his collegiate career, but if Tennessee is going to recruit you as a kicker, you should be able to put it at least within the same ZIP code as the goalposts.
Luckily, Medley redeemed himself some with a made 36-yarder (and he was 5-of-5 on extra points).
At halftime, we had a difficult time coming up with a grade. We hadn't seen many major coaching decisions, and we really wanted to see how the Vols would adjust to a few passing hitches Utah State had thrown at them in the first half.
Needless to say, we were impressed. Butch Jones made adjustments on both sides of the ball, and the Vols were able to break open the game early in the second half while holding the Aggies in check.
After years of searching, it looks as if Tennessee may have finally found its head coach.
Unless otherwise noted, quotes or references to quotes were obtained firsthand by the writer.
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