Vols 31 South Alabama 24 - Bullets, Dodged and Otherwise

Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Tennessee turned a strong performance into a near disaster against the Jaguars.

Let's be clear:  the most important piece of information about today's game is the Vols won it, and the biggest bullet is the one Tennessee dodged.  This had all the drama and all the ulcers of UAB and Troy from the Derek Dooley administration, with the same result that leaves you thinking you feel only slightly better than you would have if South Alabama put that last ball and a two point conversion in the end zone.

The win didn't prevent insanity from remembering how to use a telephone and call in to the various UT postgame shows - one caller in particular seemed to be advocating for Fulmer, Cutcliffe, and Kiffin in the same breath - and doesn't do much of anything to make Tennessee fans feel like things are going to get better anytime soon.  October comes calling with Georgia, South Carolina, and Alabama, so in part that was always going to be the case.

However, the insanity sector of our fanbase should stop taking aim at the current coaching staff five games into its administration, especially considering lack of talent is still the number one culprit and it is this administration who currently holds the nation's second best class of commitments.  We won today.  That's happened less often than not in the last six years.  Inhale.  Exhale.

Tennessee dodged a major bullet and shot themselves with several others.  I feel both better and worse about Justin Worley after today's performance:  better about his arm strength and slightly better about his ball placement, but slightly worse about his decision making.  Worley threw a rope to Josh Smith on the deep touchdown, which was awesome.  The 3rd and 15 strike to Jason Croom for 22 yards (on the drive that ended with the botched field goal) was another great play.  And you can argue that two of his interceptions weren't entirely his fault:  Pig Howard may or may not have stopped on his route in the end zone, and another ball was tipped that started South Alabama's run.

But Justin Worley was not supposed to be and cannot be in the future the guy who decides to throw into triple coverage in the end zone.  Coming in, Worley was primarily the starter because he subscribed to the "Do No Harm" philosophy more than anyone else on the roster.  But he's now thrown six interceptions in four games.  Even if half of them may or may not be his fault, Tennessee's strength is not in the pass game and the Vols don't need Worley to be a hero.

Along those lines, Tennessee ran for 278 yards today at a phenomenal 7.5 yards per carry.  But the Vols, who led almost the entire way and had a substantial lead into the third quarter, still leave today with 37 rushes and 36 passes.  You can applaud the balance if you like, but we're not a balanced offense.  To be successful, Tennessee needs the run game to be great.  It was great today, but why didn't we lean on it more?

Between the bullets we dodged and the round after round we shot at ourselves, going forward does this team have any in their own gun other than the run game it can rely on?

I do think this was a better defensive performance than it felt like.  The Vol defense now has 11 interceptions and 15 total turnovers gained this year; last year the Vols had 12 and 17 all year, respectively.  Tennessee also gave up 392 yards, but after the first drive the adjustments were significant.  The Jaguars went 82 yards in six plays on the opener, then got 310 yards on 73 plays the rest of the way (4.2 yards per play).

The Vols also continued to surrender touchdowns just half the time the opposition enters the red zone; the Jaguars got inside the 20 four times today, but were forced to kick a field goal after a 1st and Goal situation in the third quarter, and of course fired an interception on the game's deciding play in the fourth quarter.  That puts the Vols at 24 red zone attempts but just 12 touchdowns allowed on the season; that's good work from the defense.

And we'll need it.  Since the 17-9 Cocktail Party win last year, Georgia has scored 37, 38, 45, 42, 28 (loss to #1 Alabama), 45, 35 (loss to #3 Clemson), 41, 45, and 44 in their last ten games.

Tennessee also has to do a better job on third down on both sides of the ball.  The offense went 4 of 11 today, and though it picked up a couple of big ones in the second half, if we're giving it back that many times we're not going to be successful in the SEC.  And while South Alabama went 7 of 17 (41.1%, better than the 45.6% we were allowing coming in), the Jaguars converted a 3rd and 9, 3rd and 15, 3rd and 10, plus a 4th and 9.  We can't have that and be successful.

Heading to October, it remains what we thought it would be:  Tennessee's margin for error is extraordinarily thin.  You give thanks for the bullets you dodge, especially when it's the difference between a win and a loss today.  But if Tennessee is going to shoot itself, we'll get embarrassed until November and then spend the holidays at the house, again.  Where the Vols aren't good, they have to be clean.  We got away with it today.  It won't happen again.

Go Vols.

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