October 14, 2012
Vols' season assumes unwanted theme
STARKVILLE, Miss. --- Now, the gnashing of teeth begins in earnest only because the final whistle Saturday night at Scott Field brings another disappointing road loss into the history books for Tennessee football.
Fair or not, speculation is now the theme of this Volunteers' season.
Can this team break its October Southeastern Conference hex, an skid of infamy stretching through nearly 1,080 days of Halloween-month darkness? Tennessee hasn't beaten an SEC team in October, or any SEC team other than Kentucky, Ole Miss or Vanderbilt since 2009. With top-five residents Alabama and South Carolina looming, logic dictates no.
Can this team block out the distractions and at least win its four highly winnable November games? It would give Tennessee a 7-5 ledger, a victory (Missouri) it badly needs against someone other than those aforementioned SEC middling peers and allow some postseason bowl game.
Can Derek Dooley overcome hiring Sal Sunseri? Harsh, perhaps. But for all the Vols' struggles on special teams and at inopportune moments at the quarterback position, they are mostly scoring plenty enough points to win. They are vastly improved in running the football. They now can somewhat consistently even pick up third-and-short situations on the ground.
Defensively, Tennessee isn't getting much of a chance. Not across the breadth of a game; not for the duration winning in the SEC requires. These are not opinions; mere facts. Tennessee is on pace to field statistically one of its three-worst, if not all-time worst, defensive units.
Three league opponents now possess a combined 129 points against Sunseri's porous defense, as well as 1,560 yards and 66 first downs. All last season, SEC foes can point merely to 223 points and 2,850 total yards. The current pace is 4,160 yards and 344 points.
"Well, we're not very good right now. Because you are what your film is," Dooley said of the defense. "We don't get off blocks the way we need to up front. We don't get enough hats to the football. We didn't really give up a ton of huge plays tonight. So it was a little bit different story. We bled to death. Just bled to death. And then we hit these stretches where we play pretty good, which is what's bizarre.
"So yeah, it's not good. Three SEC games giving up a lot of yards and a lot of points."
In the opening half Saturday night, perhaps those cowbells the only thing more rattled than Sunseri's defense, the Bulldogs continually chewed through the Vols for 293 yards on 49 plays. The defense's inefficiency resulting in a season-low 20 first-half offensive snaps for Tennessee. State's stat crew deftly noting not since 2003 could a Bulldogs quarterback tout 200 first-half passing yards against an SEC foe. Then pointing out not since 1994 could an MSU team boast of scoring 27 first-half points against league brethren.
A program that proudly points to more than 120 years' history is dangerously approaching an historic defensive collapse. Only twice in its storied annals are there examples of defenses allowing more than 300 points. This one's on pace for 378.
Might Dooley wish the switch to the 3-4 wasn't unfolding in this hellish nightmare before him?
"No. No. That's not the issue, because we're in a 3-4," Dooley said. "There's growing pains, don't get me wrong. But we could be playing better."
Dooley's roster is undeniably undergoing steady improvement following his arrival. His assembly of scholarship talent is encouraging; the team's inability to break through to win with that talent is, at a bare minimum, highly discouraging and probably closer to dispiriting.
Dooley himself is growing as a coach. He is more in tune with his players; more apt to defend a player rather than offer the candid, often biting, assessment we media types latch upon like rip cords to a parachute.
Think the old Dooley emphasizes his placekickers being 9-for-11 on field goals as means of deflecting some point-after struggles? I don't.
Moreover, Tennessee's recruiting board is close to looking much more encouraging; some wins and more players appear close to signifying they're buying into the Vols. This program needs another solid signing class like "Dances With The Stars" needs quadruple elimination contests. Desperately, that is.
At halftime on this evening, State's Maroon Band pays tribute to the Mayan Empire, its forecasting of the end of days and even recreates R.E.M.'s classic "It's The End of the World As We Know It" track.
Tennessee rallying, the fourth quarter begins with State executing a draw play covering 21 yards. Picks up a first down. Is this a replay? The end of a season as we know it?
The Vols have other chances. Field position is miserable. The Vols' most consistent resident this season in its secondary, Byron Moore, drops the easiest interception he will never have. Third-string tailback Devrin Young runs with a rugged purpose, spelling Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane. Young fumbles. State recovers. Three players later, it scores the decisive touchdown.
Variables change for the Vols. Results, however, do not. This team battles again till the bitter end, but how many times can it do that without anything to show for it? For how long can the margin of error be shoestring tenuous?
So Saturday means what for Tennessee's future? It's open for speculation.
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