Tennessee Football: Debunking the Negative Aspects of the Volunteers' Season
Still, from what I've heard, people seem to be panicking about the Vols' season after the loss to Florida in Week 3.
I, however, do not think it is time to give up on Tennessee yet.
Yes, the possibility of a great season is out the window, but there's still a chance that Tennessee could finish the season with seven or eight wins.
I'll admit that it's far less likely than it was before the Florida game, but it could still happen.
I'm going to break down the top five negative things I've heard about Tennessee the last two weeks and debunk them to show why Tennessee is still a team to fear in the SEC.
1. There Is No Running Game
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Tennessee could not run against Florida—at all.
That is an indisputable fact, but after this week, Tennessee fans can take comfort in the fact that no one else has been able to run against Florida either.
Florida has emerged as the No. 1 run defense in the SEC—better than LSU, better than South Carolina and better than Alabama. Despite what Kentucky did by putting up decent run numbers, if you watched the game, you know that Florida never felt threatened and played prevent defense early on.
If you look at the running backs in all three games so far, it doesn't look quite as bad.
Tauren Poole had 54 carries for 217 yards. Marlin Lane has 23 carries for 60 yards.
Neither of those are as abysmal as people are making the Tennessee running game out to be.
Poole rushed for 101 yards against Cincinnati. Big deal, it's just Cincinnati, right?
Cincinnati's defense held N.C. State to -26 rushing yards last week. For comparison, N.C. State rushed for 109 yards against Wake Forest just two weeks earlier.
Doesn't look so bad now, does it?
Florida shut Tennessee down, but don't expect that to be the norm for the rest of the season.
2. The Defense Is Bad
The defense is not stellar, but it's still not as bad as everyone makes it out to be.
I'll tell you what the defense is: inexperienced.
And no, I don't mean they're young (well, I do, but not just that).
Most of what I mean is that the defense is taking a while to figure out its role. Let's look at some of the guys in the lineup:
Daniel Hood, defensive tackle: converted offensive lineman.
Malik Jackson, defensive tackle: converted defensive end.
Prentiss Waggner, free safety: converted cornerback.
Curt Maggitt, outside linebacker: converted defensive end.
A.J. Johnson, outside linebacker: converted middle linebacker.
If you can't tell, that's a lot of guys who are playing out of position.
In Johnson, Waggner and Jackson's cases, it's because they are needed more at the position they play than at the position they are built to play. In the case of Maggitt and Hood, they're still learning the position.
Something like that creates a long learning curve.
Remember in the Cincinnati game how Tennessee could not stop Isaiah Pead at all in the beginning of the game? Well, as the game wore on, the defense got into a groove and figured out how to stop him.
Pead put up 167 yards against N.C. State last weekend, by the way.
Tennessee is taking too long to figure out what they're doing on defense, but I expect them to continue to improve through the rest of the season as they continue to settle into their roles.
3. Justin Hunter's Injury Makes the Passing Game Weak
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Yes, I think Justin Hunter was the best receiver on the team, but he wasn't the best by a very large margin.
Why don't we compare Justin Hunter's stats to the stats of Da'Rick Rogers and Mychal Rivera:
Against Montana, Hunter had six catches for 146 yards and one touchdown (81 yards came from one catch).
Da'Rick Rogers had five catches for 100 yards and a touchdown; his long was 47 yards. Mychal Rivera did not have any catches that game, as Tennessee took an early lead and played in stride afterward.
Against Cincinnati, Hunter had 10 catches for 156 yards and one touchdown. Rogers had 10 catches for 100 yards and two touchdowns. Rivera had six catches for 54 yards.
When you look at the numbers, you see that Bray targeted Rogers just as often as he targeted Hunter. Rivera was becoming another major part of the passing attack as well.
With DeAnthony Arnett and Zach Rogers now moving into starting roles, Bray will have to spread the ball around a little more, but the passing attack will, by no means, be weak.
4. Tennessee Can't Stop Elite Offensive Players
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Chris Rainey ran and caught all over the Volunteers in the Florida loss.
That was a fluke. Tennessee was disheartened by getting behind early and the loss of one of their offensive playmakers on top of the disadvantage of playing on the road.
However, elite offensive players like Julio Jones and LaMichael James were able to post huge gains on Tennessee again and again last year.
Again, I bring up Isaiah Pead. He broke out on one of his first carries for a 65-yard touchdown. He continued to make big progress in carries until the end of the first quarter.
Outside of a 23-yarder at the end of the half, Pead ran for 34 yards on 10 carries the rest of the game. For Pead, who is considered to be a top-five running back, that's a shutdown.
Rainey gave the Vols something they weren't prepared for when they had already had their game plan thrown out of whack by the loss of Justin Hunter. Don't expect another player to do that to Tennessee again this season.
5. Special Teams Are Bad
Michael Pallardy has gotten a lot of heat about not being good enough both in 2010 and this season, but it's all overblown.
Yes, he missed an important field goal against Florida, but missed field goals are a fact of life. He's missed two of four so far this season. While that's not very good, his kickoffs have been pretty consistently deep and hung in the air for a long time.
(Not to mention that perfectly executed onside kick against Cincinnati.)
Defending punt returns was a big problem with the team until the Florida game. It was one of the few areas where the Vols saw improvement in Week 3.
Remember Chris Rainey? The guy the defense could do nothing to stop? He had three punt returns for a total of...21 yards. The Cincinnati guys averaged more than 20 yards returning kickoffs.
While kickoff returns were still a problem, with the talent on Florida's roster and in The Swamp, it could have been worse.
A far as the blocked punt goes, well, let's just say there have been allegations by people not affiliated with Tennessee that the Gators may cheat occasionally on punts. I am not endorsing nor denouncing this point of view, just be aware that it exists and make your own judgment.
The special teams, like the defense, is by no means great, but they're also by no means terrible.
And they're getting better; that's something to feel good about.
Conclusion: There Are Several Wins Left in the Season
Buffalo is Buffalo. Anyone who thinks they will beat Tennessee is kidding themselves.
The same can be said of Middle Tennessee State.
With those two wins, Tennessee moves up to four wins, but what about the other teams on the roster?
Next up (after Montana) is Georgia, and while they were ranked No. 19 in the first AP Poll, they have not lived up to the hype. The Dawgs are 2-2 right now with wins over Coastal Carolina and Ole Miss.
If you watched Georgia play Ole Miss, you're probably a lot less afraid of them now. They beat Ole Miss handily (27-13), but the Rebels lost to Vanderbilt 30-7. Vanderbilt also played half the game with their backup quarterback.
After Georgia, Tennessee hosts LSU. While LSU may be the best team in the country, if Tennessee goes into the game 4-1 and remembering how close they came last year, anything could happen.
The next week, Tennessee travels to Alabama, where they have no realistic chance of winning. However, in the 91-year history of the Tennessee-Alabama rivalry, teams that have had no realistic chance of winning have won, so you never know.
South Carolina and Arkansas are both tough, but neither looks nearly as tough as they did a week ago. They'll likely be losses, but with some luck, any of those games could be wins.
Tennessee then has a game against Vanderbilt, who has a tough defense, but a terrible offense; after a promising 3-0 start, they're starting to look like Vanderbilt again. Then the Vols finish the season against Kentucky, who may be as bad as Ole Miss.
Even without any upsets, if Tennessee beats Georgia, then the Vols are looking at a 7-5 season, which isn't bad since it will have been played without Justin Hunter, Janzen Jackson and Herman Lathers.
Don't believe the negative hype, Tennessee will rebound next week!