The last two weeks, when faced with potential emotional letdowns, Lane Kiffin pushed all the right buttons. Heartbroken after the Alabama loss? Black jerseys provided a lift, and the Vols started fast in a 31-13 win over South Carolina. Worried about not taking Memphis seriously? Kiffin opens competition at half a dozen positions, and the Vols bury the Tigers 42-7 in the first half.
Today, in what was already an emotionally-charged situation with Ed Orgeron returning to his old 'cruitin grounds, the Vols were thrown another curveball with the arrests of three freshmen on Thursday morning. And this time, there were no more buttons to push: whatever Tennessee's emotional state, playing against Dexter McCluster without your starting free safety and with your third string middle linebacker is clearly a recipe for disaster.
No buttons to push, and no answers for McCluster led to a 42-17 Rebel victory over the once-hot Vols, who leave Oxford at 5-5, wounded but still with a chance to improve and get bowl eligible. The Rebels, meanwhile, revive their season and will go into next week's showdown against LSU with a world of momentum.
You got the sense from the opening kickoff, which went out of bounds - and we'll get to special teams in a moment - that Tennessee just wasn't right. And it didn't take McCluster long to prove it.
The Rebels went 60 yards in only 4 plays off the out of bounds kickoff, with McCluster ending it on a 15 yard touchdown run. The Vols were equal to the task early, matching Ole Miss's first two scores with scores of their own, as Jonathan Crompton hit Jeff Cottam and Denarius Moore for touchdowns. But as the game wore on, the Vols couldn't find consistentcy on offense, and McCluster was consistently great.
While Tennessee struggled to a 275 yard, 4-of-13 on third down offensive performance, Ole Miss ripped Monte Kiffin's defense for 492 yards, 359 of which came on the ground, and 324 total by way of McCluster. The senior - which is the best word in this sentence - set school records for rushing yards (282) and total yards (324), and averaged an insane 11 yards per touch. No one on the defense had an answer: even Eric Berry couldn't get him on the ground by himself, while Rico McCoy - the lone remaining healthy starting linebacker - played his worst game of the season by far. When you're shorthanded and distracted already against a player like McCluster and your best players don't play their best, you lose.
The Vols had their chances at times, especially at the end of the first half and the start of the second, when Ole Miss shanked a field goal, the Vols kicked one of their own, and then Wes Brown scored an interception on the one truly well defended play of the afternoon. Down 21-17, Tennessee had a chance to take the lead...but Jonathan Crompton (20 of 37 for only 176 yards, 2 TDs and not responsible for stopping McCluster) threw behind Denarius Moore on 4th down, and the Rebels were done giving Tennessee opportunities.
The rest of the game felt like a flashback to both times the Vols played Nebraska in bowl games following the 1997 and 1999 seasons: you knew what was coming, and you knew we wouldn't stop it. McCluster's success allowed Jevan Snead to hide for most of the day with a 13 of 20, 133 yard performance. Tennessee's defense has been statistically very good all season, but the two SEC opponents they've faced that spread the defense out have crossed them up all day long: Ole Miss had 492 yards today, and Auburn had 459 yards, both Tennessee losses. And while we won't see Gus Malzahn again for quite some time, Ole Miss comes to Knoxville 52 weeks from today...sans-McCluster, but still. The defense has to improve against teams that run offensive systems like this.
The reality is, this team is still young and still improving, and also still learning. The Vols are 5-5 and still have a chance to improve on last year, and a trip to the Chick-Fil-A Bowl is still very much on the table, which I think would be a very big deal for this team. There is still a lot to be happy about with this team.
That said, our special teams play is indefensible.
Daniel Lincoln returned and made a 27 yarder, but apparently anything we try over 40 yards is going to get blocked. Tennessee has now surrendered 4 blocked field goals, 1 blocked punt, 1 missed extra point, and 2 kickoffs returned for touchdowns this season. This is unacceptable, regardless of how many years Lane Kiffin has been here. This isn't why the Vols lost, but is a glaring, glaring hole in our football team; if the Vols are down 2 to Vanderbilt next week on the final drive, how confident is our kicker and our entire team in our ability to make a field goal of any real length to win?
On the whole, you tip your hat to Dexter McCluster and wish him well in his future endeavors, and we turn our attention to Vanderbilt. We'll apparently do so without yet another linebacker, as LaMarcus Thompson went down on the Rebels' final drive with a head or neck injury, where we don't really know any details except that he was in a lot of pain. And in terms of button pushing, the Vols' four previous losses were by 4, 10, 4 and 2, two of those games to the #1 team in the country. This is Kiffin's first taste of getting blown out in Knoxville...how will he respond? How will this team respond?
The answers come next week, with a solid finish and a trip to a solid bowl still on the table. For now, congrats to the Rebels, and we look forward to seeing McCluster again only in our nightmares.