The Tennessee Volunteers suffered through their worst four-year stretch of football since 1903-1906. The hope was that stretch would end in 2014. While the signs are good for long-term improvement at the season’s midway point, in the short-term the results still may not be there.
The Vols stand at 3-3, 0-2 in the SEC and with the bulk of their schedule still remaining. Tennessee entered the season as the only squad in college football not to return a single starter from either the offensive or defensive lines from a season ago. While there have been some growing pains the elevation in talent is obvious. UT still has not learned how to finish games however. Close does not cut it in this league, and Butch Jones knows it.
Tennessee took care of business in their opening two games, defeating Utah State 38-7 and Arkansas State 34-19. Following that was a 34-10 loss at #3 Oklahoma, but it was a game more competitive than the score indicated, with an OU pick-six being the devastating blow. Then came two games that showed the progress made, emphasizing the gap that had opened between UT and the rest of their main competition.
The Volunteers opened up a quick 10-0 lead at Georgia, only to give it up but battle back narrowly falling 35-32. Todd Gurley ran wild on the defense, unable to get that one stop they needed. It was a theme continuing a week later as UT entered the fourth quarter with a 9-0 lead, but could not contain freshman QB Treon Harris, who came off the bench to lead Florida to their 10th straight win over Tennessee, 10-9. Tennessee ended the three-game losing streak with a 45-10 win over Chattanooga last Saturday.
Now the challenge gets even tougher. This week the Volunteers travel to 6-0 and #3 Ole Miss, followed by a home game against Alabama—then the always-difficult trip to South Carolina. After a week off, the Vols host Kentucky on November 15 and Missouri on the 22, before ending the season in Nashville against struggling Vanderbilt on the 29.
Offensively, the Vols have been led by the passing game. Justin Worley is maturing nicely, but still needs to learn how to close games out, a common theme. Worley has completed 63.3% of his passes with 12 touchdowns and five interceptions. His favorite target has been Marquez North with 25 catches but he is averaging less than 10 yards per catch. If there is anything specific you can point to that is wrong with this offense it is that they do not stretch the field nearly enough. This has affected the running game. Jalen Hurd is the leading rusher with 374 yards. The team only averaging 109.7 per game.
On defense, A.J. Johnson is earning some All-American talk with his 68 tackles. The defense runs through him, and he is the one player other teams must scheme against. But this defense has only forced 14 turnovers and garnered only 12 sacks through six games. Cameron Sutton leads with three interceptions; Jalen Reeves-Maybin has seven tackles for loss; and Curt Maggitt leads with three sacks. The kicking game has been mostly average with Aaron Medley 9-12 on field goals and Matt Darr averaging 41 yards per punt. Tennessee has no return touchdowns this season.
Tennessee is better but there is little to brag about. If this team can squeeze out three more wins to return to bowl play, it will have to be seen as a success.