Tennessee wrap-up: Vols have a long, long way to go

By Jess Nicholas, TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief

Oct. 23, 2011

 

There’s not a kind way to say this: Tennessee is a bad football team.

 

Despite having more talent than most people will probably credit the program for having, Alabama essentially spotted the Volunteers an entire half of football and then crushed them under a crimson thumb, winning 37-6.

 

For a game that was knotted 6-6 at the half, this one didn’t really feel close. The mood in the stadium at halftime was one of comfort. Fans knew that head coach Nick Saban was about to unleash a diatribe of cosmic proportions and solar intensity upon his team following a muddled effort from everyone not named Dont’a Hightower. Even Tennessee seemed to know its fate, and Alabama wasted no time in righting the ship in the third quarter.

 

By the time the rest of the Crimson Tide had caught up to Hightower’s level of play, Tennessee had no chance. It’s tough to pin down exactly where Tennessee failed, because the choices are too many.

 

Vol running back Tauren Poole, for the second straight year, ran with a purpose and refused to quit. He didn’t have much company, however. Quarterback Matt Simms just isn’t a SEC quarterback, the defense isn’t an SEC defense and, as head coach Derek Dooley so aptly put it in his post-game press conference, this is a fragile Tennessee team. It can’t handle adversity, it can’t handle injuries and it certainly couldn’t handle an Alabama team determined to be undefeated when LSU comes calling in two weeks.

 

What Tennessee has handled this year, however, is losing. The Volunteers seem to handle it each week like a bunch of old pros.

 

Even though Phil Fulmer has been gone since 2008 and Lane Kiffin is no longer in Knoxville, either, the Vol program is one that looks to be out of fresh ideas. Even the Volunteer band trotted out the old “circle drill” at the half, a routine so familiar to Alabama that many UA fans know the sequence of songs by heart. From the football team, the performance wasn’t much different. This is a Tennessee team stuck in a different era – one devoid of team speed, offensive ingenuity or defensive intensity.

 

Dooley is probably going to get another year or two to turn things around, largely because Tennessee has no choice. This is a school that has employed three head coaches over a four-year span of time, has just weathered an NCAA investigation, has no depth, but does have a collective psyche with bonds so tenuous that the Tennessee team didn’t need to take a bus back to Knoxville Saturday night; it needed to be shipped in a UPS truck with “Handle With Care” stamped on the side of the box.

 

For Alabama to look as bad as it did in the first half – easily the worst stretch of football since the opening drive of the Penn State game – and still cover the point spread is just further evidence of how far Alabama’s trajectory is separated from Tennessee’s at the moment. Alabama wandered in the woods for exactly one year under Nick Saban before launching itself into a high orbit. The Volunteers are crashing to earth just as fast as Alabama left the ground.

 

Dooley seemed determined to make Alabama throw the ball to beat his team. What he didn’t account for was the fact Alabama could actually do it. Trent Richardson was bottled up for most of the game, but Alabama QB A.J. McCarron filled the playmaking void in his absence. The Vols gave LSU no blueprint for beating the Tide; if anything, Les Miles and crew only got more things to think about.

 

It’s unclear if anything Alabama learned against Tennessee can be applied toward its game with LSU in two weeks. LSU and Alabama are clearly operating on a level far above any other team in the conference at the moment, perhaps any other team in the entire country. Tennessee finds itself hoping – hoping – to beat Kentucky and MTSU and get bowl-eligible. Long-time Tennessee fans must be apoplectic right about now.

 

It’s fitting, therefore, as the SEC prepares to expand to 14 teams, that discussion has turned to whether the Alabama-Tennessee rivalry is threatened as an annual occurrence. Maybe the rivalry is threatened for reasons having nothing to do with expansion. Maybe it’s threatened to become a one-sided affair for many seasons to come, thanks on one side to the machine-like tenacity and precision of Nick Saban and his vision, and on the other side to a Tennessee program that is struggling to find its voice in a changing chorus of college football powers.

 

One thing is for sure: A few more games like this one, and Dooley won’t be around to try to fix it. Tennessee’s football team finds itself in the same place as its band – marching in circles.

 

 

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