Expectations were low for the Tennessee Volunteers in year one under Butch Jones, a difficult schedule played into that. It must be said however, as we reach the midpoint, UT has more going for it than we thought possible back in August.
I thought Tennessee would break even in the first half, the schedule was pretty clear. One knew the Vols would handle Austin Peay in Jones’ debut, they did 45-0. One believed they still had too many athletes for Western Kentucky; they forced five turnovers in a six-play stretch in rolling 52-20. Then came road trips to Oregon and Florida, those were as ugly as feared falling 59-14 to the #2-ranked Ducks and 31-17 to the Gators. Neither was as close as the score indicated. A much more difficult than expected 31-24 win over South Alabama caused concern; concerns erased a week later by the fantastic effort against Georgia, the 34-31 OT heartbreaker.
So as the Volunteers enter the season’s second half, a return to a bowl game is still possible, so is another implosion. First up is #9 South Carolina this Saturday, the Gamecocks are 5-1 and still in the national championship picture. Their only loss was at Georgia, no surprises with them, either. Following that, are trips to #1 Alabama and at the midway mark, undefeated Missouri. Auburn travels to Neyland Stadium on November 9th, then Vanderbilt does the same on the 23rd before the Vols end at Kentucky on November 30.
Justin Worley has emerged as the #1 quarterback after an early season battle with Nathan Peterman. Worley has completed 55.8% of his passes with nine touchdowns and six interceptions. His play has been largely uneven; the strength has been in the running game. Rajon Neal and Marlin Lane have combined for 158.7 of UT’s 211 rushing yards per game, with 11 of the 12 touchdowns. The Vols are averaging 39.3 run plays per game as opposed to 28.3 passes. Given the offensive line and the inconsistency from Worley, I think Tennessee should be running it even more than that.
Defense has improved from the historic lows of a year ago, but the Vols are still allowing 28 points a night and if you disregard Austin Peay, that number jumps to just fewer than 34. Sophomore Brian Randolph has been the Vols best player on defense all-around, leading the team with 29 solo tackles and three interceptions. Tennessee has grabbed 11 interceptions overall, but that has come while allowing 240.8 passing yards per outing. Michael Palardy has been solid in the kicking game though only attempting six field goals, making five.
It is still difficult to see Tennessee in a bowl this year, the passing game on both sides must get better for the Vols to have any chance. In August I thought five was the high end for wins in 2013, I have seen nothing to change that thought in six games.