By the time Brandon James streaked past the Tennessee punt team midway through the first quarter, the game was practically over. His 78-yard return was the second in his career against the Volunteers, and as he darted down the field, Big Orange fans had to wonder if he was running away with more than just the game.
Namely, the rest of the season.
With three SEC games remaining at home against No. 8 Alabama, Mississippi State and Kentucky, Tennessee will need to hold serve in Knoxville. After being blown out in Tuscaloosa last season, the Volunteers should have revenge on their mind against Alabama. And, if they don’t improve, Kentucky and Mississippi State could give them problems.
They also have to travel to No. 15 Auburn, who is coming off a heartbreaking loss to LSU, and with one of the toughest defensive units in the SEC, Tennessee’s offense could have a hard time moving the football. No. 3 Georgia has lost two in a row to the Vols, and haven’t forgotten last season’s 35-14 blowout in Knoxville.
Then there’s No. 21 Vanderbilt, who is easily the biggest surprise of the season so far. The Commodores have tried to climb out of the SEC cellar in recent years, and this may be the year, making the Volunteers tough schedule even tougher after Saturday’s loss.
The offense, which outgained the Gators 258-243, showed signs of improvement, but lost three costly turnovers, two of which were inside the Florida five-yard line. Tennessee put together three sustained drives, which is encouraging, but came away with only six points.
If Jonathan Crompton can continue to improve, the Volunteers can go a long way, but it is imperative that they take care of the football. He tends to rush his throws when facing pressure, and still doesn’t make the best decisions with the football.
By employing a committee of running backs, the Vols managed to throw several different looks at the Gator defense, but were still outrushed 147-96. Arian Foster carried the ball 14 times for just 37 yards, and has a history of fumbling the football in clutch plays. Montario Hardesty continues to make his case for more touches after gaining 22 yards on seven carries.
As usual, the defense played well enough for the Vols to win, if not for the turnovers and special teams’ mistakes. They limited Tim Tebow to just 96 yards passing and 26 yards rushing on 12 carries, but Florida’s running backs managed to pick up sizeable chunks of yardage on several third downs.
The defense seemed geared to stop only Tebow. It looked at times like Florida could move the ball at will. Eric Berry anchored the secondary, which was the most dependable unit, but didn’t create any turnovers. Tebow only attempted 15 passes all day, which indicates how important stopping the run was to Tennessee.
Britton Colquitt will return in two weeks to help bolster the punting game. They are currently ranked 118 out of 119 FBS teams.
The Volunteers are still one of the top teams in the SEC, and they are always in the mix in September. If they can make a few adjustments, the defense will play well enough to keep them in every game this season. They just can’t afford to give the ball away as they did Saturday.