You've seen the game. You've read the recaps. You know what happened. It was a tough loss for Tennessee Saturday, but a valiant performance in playing toe-to-toe with a superior team and taking the game to overtime. But that's all big picture. In particular, what looked better? What looked worse? What looked about the same? This is where we sort it all out.
- Young playmakers. Most of these guys deserve their own bullet point, but even I have limitations for how long I'll make an article. But Jalen Reeves-Mayhem continues to be an absolute terror on special teams, adding a blocked punt to his typical textbook kick coverage and open-field tackling. It's time for him to be getting more time on defense, isn't it? Devaun Swafford, a true freshman walk-on from Kingsport, scored his second touchdown of the season returning said blocked punt. Cameron Sutton continues to look like a potential star corner as a true freshman. Corey Vereen is a terror off the edge and managed a sack on a key third down. And on offense, Pig Howard turned 10 touches into 116 yards. Pig is the only non-freshman mentioned in this section. The future is bright.
- Justin Worley. Worley still isn't a very good quarterback. He still made some terrible throws, and he still doesn't have a particularly strong arm. But after numerous back-foot throws under the slightest bit of pressure in the first five games, Worley settled down and stood in the pocket on Saturday. The results? 17/31 for 215 yards, one touchdown, and no turnovers. It's not enough to win a game by itself, but it's enough to take some pressure off and let the ground game do its thing. Speaking of which. . .
- The ground game. The Vols have had high hopes for the rushing game all season, and while a solid performance last week was written off because of the opponent, this one won't be. Last week, LSU averaged 2.1 yards per carry against the Georgia front. Saturday, Tennessee averaged 4.6 yards per carry. And that includes sacks. The line did what fans hoped it could, and Rajion Neal had the best game of his Tennessee career, turning 33 touches into 167 yards, 148 of which came on his 28 rush attempts. That's good for 5.3 yards per carry, none more memorable than a pair of 4th down conversions deep in Tennessee territory. Speaking of which. . .
- Dovie'andi se tovya sagain. Or, in non-nerd, tossing the dice. There were Tennessee fans, myself included, who were frustrated at Butch Jones calling too conservative a game at Oregon, where Tennessee needed to take chances to win. Jones took chances on Saturday. Three times he called for the offense on 4th and 1, twice well into his own territory. The first time, a pitch play caught Georgia by complete surprise, and Neal rumbled for 43 yards. The second time, it was Neal again with perhaps a better play, a twisting, diving run that avoided a defense that had gotten penetration and gained the one yard needed to move the chains. And on the third fourth and one, Jones dialed up a play-action pass to true freshman A.J. Branisel, good for 28 yards. Three attempts. Three successes. Jones needs to take chances to beat superior teams, and he could not have done better on that score against Georgia.
- Play-calling. This is another subject which has been open to criticism over the last few weeks, but not Saturday afternoon. The Vols offense were largely able to stay in Justin Worley's comfort zone, and the yards through the air were supplemented by an effective power run game and the occasional WR carry to keep the defense on their toes. Mike Bajakian was one step ahead of Todd Grantham for the entire second half, and Tennessee was forced to kick just once on its last five drives. That's the kind of offensive coaching the Vols will hope to see much more often moving forward.
- Third down defense. Coming into Saturday's game, Tennessee opponents were converting 45% of their third downs. And Georgia had a better offense than four of those five previous opponents. So what happened? The Vols held Georgia to just 4/13 on third down conversions, including a 1/8 start. The Bulldogs were able to convert enough third downs on the final drive of regulation to force overtime, but this was still a big step up for the Tennessee defense.
- Belief. Based on what I know about Butch Jones and his coaching style, I suspect the team already believed they could go toe-to-toe with the big boys. But actually doing it takes that belief to a whole new level. And after Saturday, I suspect the fans are along for the ride.
- Atmosphere. I wasn't there Saturday, but we have several here who were, and the reports are unanimous: this was an old-school Neyland atmosphere. And during one of the biggest recruiting weekends in recent memory, the timing wasn't too bad.
- Discipline. This has been excellent under Butch Jones, but it was a problem on Saturday. The Vols were called for four false starts--more than the number of total flags on the Vols in their opening two contests combined--three of which led directly to stalled drives. Even worse, there were two personal foul penalties, one on freshman Corey Vereen and one on the coach himself, without which Tennessee could've easily pulled out a victory. Overall, the Vols were flagged nine times for 67 yards, and Georgia's total yardage advantage nearly doubles when penalty yards are added.
- Forcing turnovers. Even a good, aggressive defensive team probably isn't going to consistently force turnovers every week. But the Vols were top 10 in getting extra possessions, and they couldn't manage even once against Georgia--honestly, it's astounding that they came so close to winning the game without forcing any turnovers. And this may have more to do with the Georgia offense than the Tennessee defense, but the Vols would be well-served to go back to getting their hands on the ball in two weeks against South Carolina.
- Defending on the edges. Early in the game, Aaron Murray feasted on sideline throws of less than five yards that consistently turned into first downs when Tennessee's corners failed to make tackles. On Georgia's game-winning drive, the key play was a swing pass on 3rd and 6 that went for 32 yards and put the Bulldogs inside the Tennessee 15 with over a half-minute to play. This has been a problem every week, and it was a problem every week last year. But whereas last year, the issues were obviously schematic, this year's problems seem to boil down to individual ability. Tennessee is still playing from behind in terms of talent, and that doesn't get fixed overnight.