Tennessee's Uninspired Effort Leaves Questions About Program's Direction

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistOctober 30, 2016

As many positive steps as Butch Jones and the Tennessee program have taken this year, Saturday night marked a terrible setback.
As many positive steps as Butch Jones and the Tennessee program have taken this year, Saturday night marked a terrible setback.Tyler Lecka/Getty Images

Tennessee's 24-21 loss to a struggling South Carolina Gamecocks team that featured a quarterback who should be in high school revealed a cold truth about the Volunteers: They really aren't that good.

To put it bluntly, it made you question head coach Butch Jones' regime and the program's direction.

A setback that may have seemed shocking to the college football nation shouldn't have been all that surprising—not after the way the Vols' once-promising season has unfurled.

After all, these same Volunteers who ended an 11-game drought with a win against Florida also needed overtime to beat mid-major Appalachian State to start the season and a Hail Mary to upend a bad Georgia team, turned the ball over seven times in a double-overtime loss to Texas A&M and failed to make a whimper against Alabama.

A bye week should have recharged Tennessee's batteries, especially since it got back several injured players it had been missing over the past several weeks. The unexpected defeat left a lot of media members, such as GoVols247's Wes Rucker, searching for words:

The talent upgrade from the Derek Dooley era is obvious. But this was supposed to be a big year in Knoxville. Instead, the Vols will likely be relegated to watching the SEC Championship Game yet again and lose the top-end talent that was supposed to make this season special.

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Tennessee needed help to win the SEC East even before Saturday night, but since Florida still had road games against Arkansas and LSU on its schedule and had already lost the head-to-head tiebreaker with UT, the season's biggest goal of playing for the SEC championship remained in reach.

The Vols survived their gauntlet of Florida, Georgia, Texas A&M and Alabama with a 5-2 record. The end of the season lined up favorably too, with trips to South Carolina and Vanderbilt and home games against Tennessee Tech, Kentucky and Missouri.

But with all those mountains climbed already, the Vols couldn't get over the first speed bump. With plenty to play for, it's difficult to fathom how Tennessee came out so flat.

After the game, Jones vowed to 247Sports' John Brice that the season wasn't over:

It doesn't matter.

Aaron Medley's 58-yard field-goal attempt fell short Saturday night, much like Tennessee is going to on its goals for the season.

The reasons for the Rocky Tumble are numerous.

Injuries have forced UT to shuffle backups all over the field during the past few weeks. Another major blow occurred against South Carolina, when starting defensive tackle Shy Tuttle was carted off the sideline with an apparent leg injury.

But that isn't an excuse for what transpired. Whereas Jones' first three teams were known for their discipline and sound fundamentals, this one has been just as mistake-prone as those were meticulous.

It was no different against the Gamecocks.

Quarterback Joshua Dobbs had his worst game since his freshman season against Missouri, throwing two interceptions and losing a fumble on a bizarre play when backup running back Carlin Fils-Aime ran into him as he was attempting to throw.

That play came after Evan Berry's 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown cut the deficit to 17-14 and two defensive stops that should have given the Vols momentum. They choked it away.

Four plays after the turnover, Gamecocks freshman quarterback Jake Bentley beat a blitz and hit a wide-open K.C. Crosby to help South Carolina take a 10-point lead.

Dobbs' performance put Tennessee in a predicament. He's the face of the program, and while one bad game shouldn't signal the end for the senior, the Vols can't continue to tolerate poor play like that if they expect to win out.

Dobbs has won a lot of ballgames for the Vols over the past couple of years, but he was a key reason why they lost this one.

It's hard to put this one in the past, but Tennessee has to erase it quickly, as Jones told VolQuest.com's Paul Fortenberry:

Actually, though, this loss does define this year's Vols; it's a microcosm of the maddening team they've been. That's why while you can put this game in the rearview mirror, the remnants will remain.

Tennessee entered Saturday ranked 121st nationally in giveaways and 10th in the SEC in penalties. Both were culprits in the loss at South Carolina.

While nobody would argue that Jones' job is now in jeopardy, this was an alarming turn of events. There are areas the Vols must fix if they're going to move from being a good team to an elite one.

That step seems so far away.

The journey, however, starts with updating the offensive scheme. Coordinator Mike DeBord's unit has regressed this season, and though the Vols have experienced a slight uptick in their passing game, the dominant running game that existed in 2015 is a distant memory.

Jones proved in the offseason he wasn't shy about shaking up the coaching staff, parting ways with defensive coordinator John Jancek in order to hire Bob Shoop. It's time to make a similar decision with DeBord after this season.

Wade Payne/Associated Press

The scheme looks clunky and slow to develop, and DeBord's play-calling is predictable. There's little downfield action, and opposing defenses have no fear of giving up big plays against the Vols. The offensive line continues to have its issues as well.

The offense is fundamentally broken.

With Dobbs moving on, it would be the perfect time to bring in some outside elements to infuse into Jones' scheme. Though Tennessee has recruited some dynamic athletes with speed to play in this offense, their skill sets haven't been utilized well enough within the framework of the unit.

Not only has that been detrimental to this campaign, it's worrisome for the future.

Saturday night's loss to South Carolina was certainly disappointing to all Tennessee fans, but it shouldn't have been all that surprising. This team had been living on the brink of self-destruction all season, and it got its comeuppance in Columbia.

How do you have so much to play for and put forth the kind of performance the Vols did? You can't answer that without asking difficult questions about just where Jones is at this stage of developing the program.

You can build a program brick by brick, and Jones has done an excellent job doing just that. But Saturday showed what many Vols fans have feared this season: There are cracks in the foundation.

If those don't get fixed soon, 2016 may still wind up memorable—for all the wrong reasons.

    

Quotes and information gathered firsthand unless otherwise noted. Statistics obtained from cfbstats.com unless otherwise noted.

Brad Shepard covers SEC football and is the Tennessee lead writer for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter @Brad_Shepard.