Much in the same way that the overtime win at Kentucky emphasized all the good things about the Vols' 2009 season, last night's 37-14 loss to #11 Virginia Tech showed that Tennessee still has a long way to go in some areas. While the special teams meltdown we were all expecting didn't materialize, the Hokies and the Georgia Dome brought out the worst in the Vols, leaving several questions that must also be addressed for next season:
Smoke and mirrors on the offensive line
If you'd told us all in August that both Cody and Cory Sullins would start the vast majority of games this season on the offensive line, we would've assumed that the performance we saw last night would've been the last of several that left us shaking our heads. The fact that it was the first is a great testament to what James Cregg and those guys have done all season, setting the stage for Hardesty in zone blocking and keeping Crompton safe, allowing him to mature into a real quarterback.
But last night, the Hokies became the first team to take full advantage of Tennessee's undersized offensive line, teeing off repeatedly on Crompton for six sacks, and holding Hardesty to his lowest rushing total of the season. Hardesty had to work exceptionally hard for every yard he got, including his touchdown run, and the problems in run and pass protection led to the Vols finishing with a total of five rushing yards.
The problem wasn't just the size of the Sullins boys - the entire line struggled, most notably Chris Scott. The real issue here is that four of these five guys are now gone: the 2010 Vols will start sophomore Aaron Douglas at tackle and four players to be named later along the rest of the line. The solid overall play of the '09 line gives you reason to believe that Cregg can get the next makeshift group ready to go. But the problems the Vols had last night in dealing with a good defensive front make the offensive line the number one question mark heading into next season.
A defense stuck between good and great
Ryan Williams is a great player. He set Virginia Tech and ACC records this season, the Vols weren't the first to struggle with him, and they won't be the last.
There are some similarities in the three teams that have really busted up Monte Kiffin's defense - Auburn, Ole Miss and Virginia Tech, featuring Ben Tate, Dexter McCluster, and Ryan Williams - but last night was just as much about attrition as anything else, especially at linebacker. Even though both returned to the game, when Rico McCoy and Herman Lathers went out, you got a frightening look at an LB corps that included several freshmen.
The good news is Nick Reveiz and Savion Frazier should be ready to contribute again next season. The bad news is the questions will shift to defensive tackle, where Dan Williams and Wes Brown may be the two players the 2010 Vols miss the most. Montori Hughes had his moments, including last night, but who's the other defensive tackle?
The easiest way to answer this - and several - questions is to say the Vols need more talent. And the Chimera is out there right now I'm sure. The Vols played tough and hard the majority of the time on defense, but were thin and tired in the second half last night, and helpless to stop VT.
How will this defense fare next season without Eric Berry, Rico McCoy and the two tackles?
Three hat-throwing moments in the Georgia Dome last night:
- A facemask on a 3rd and goal sack that would've held VT to a field goal
- Janzen Jackson - so good on the interception on the Hokies' previous offensive play - letting anyone get behind him on the hail mary
- Denarius Moore dropping a wide open, perfectly thrown would-be touchdown
I'm not at all suggesting that the Vols win if those three plays go differently. But when you're playing a team as strong as Virginia Tech, they're going to do plenty of good on their own...you can't help them. The Vols are going to face plenty of strong teams next season, and have to be better at the little things. Which brings us to...
Because everybody loves the Nick Saban analogy today.
If we had won last night, everyone would've felt great about the entire season, it would've been a definitive success and we would've looked ahead to the immediate future with greater expectations.
But at 8-5 or 7-6, the issues going forward would've been the same, and next year is instantly what it becomes all about. We should and will still appreciate this season, but if we're always competing, it's already about 2010. Hopefully, the Vols become more committed to the process as a result of this loss. And hopefully the Vols continue to recruit well and bring more talent to help the process along.
Next year is an equally difficult picture to try to paint. I know we'll have issues on both lines, and I know we'll miss Hardesty and EB. I know that Oregon and Alabama will probably both be preseason Top 5 teams, and LSU may not be far behind.
But I also know that even eight months away, it looks like the most wide open SEC East in its eighteen year existence. I'm not suggesting the Vols are going to win it...but I'm not suggesting anyone else is either.
We saw plenty of good things this season, and even if we can't unanimously call it a success, it was tangible progress. The Vols got better, and gave you reasons to believe in both wins and losses. And the Vols also have real weaknesses that will be faced again next season. We have a lot of work to do, and along with the other eight billion Tennessee fans in the Georgia Dome last night and everyone else wearing our orange, I am very, very disappointed we didn't get it done against the Hokies.
But Kiffin has done a good job getting the process started. It wasn't easy and we had highs and lows, and next year promises more of all of that. But I still like the start...and now Kiffin has to keep it moving forward.
The image of the night belongs to Jonathan Crompton: facedown after being hit yet again, this time having fumbled in the process, snuffing out the last optimistic flame of hope. He went 15 of 26 for 235 yards. He threw an interception and fumbled. He also threw a touchdown and should've had another. He was hit repeatedly, sacked six times, and left the Georgia Dome in a neck brace en route to the hospital to be checked out for concussion-like symptoms.
Jonathan Crompton got beat up wearing the orange and white. There were reasons for all of it, whether it came from the Virginia Tech blitz or from us. He enjoyed a brief respite in the final seven games of the regular season, but in his farewell performance, he finished again facedown, struggling to get up.
But he always got up. Even when we were the ones doing our best to keep him down for good, and even when we believed we had excellent reasons for desiring that outcome. He took death threats, studied under four different offensive coordinators, and had a lot to do with Phillip Fulmer's final season going so poorly, and Lane Kiffin's first season going as well as it did.
When the Vols struggled, we blamed him, rightfully and then some. And the struggle was so great that even his very best over seven games in October and November wasn't enough to change the first lines of his Tennessee legacy; when you think of Jonathan Crompton, the first thought that will come into your head probably won't be a good one.
And the first image will be the last one, for me: facedown, struggling to get up. Same way he looked at the end of the first game of the 2008 season, same way he looked at the end of the last game of the 2009 season. Facedown, because yesterday was the last chance to change that legacy, and because the Vols lost this time for reasons that really have very little to do with him.
Jonathan Crompton took the best shots of the Tennessee fanbase and the Virginia Tech defense, and finished facedown and in the hospital for New Year's. He got beat up repeatedly, struggled more often than not, and didn't get to write his happy ending...but he kept getting up.
And he took all of that for Tennessee.
We'll eagerly move on to the four-wide QB competition in the spring, to find the next guy. We won't remember Crompton as well as any of the guys he grew up cheering for. And we probably feel like we owe him no apologies for any of it.
But for always getting up, Crompton has my respect. And for giving his all for Tennessee, Crompton has my thanks.