This Tennessee team has as specific a problem as I can ever remember.
Those who wanted to see something other than the same five offensive linemen got a chance tonight: Jacob Gilliam somehow returned to action less than two months after a torn ACL. Brett Kendrick and Austin Sanders also saw more action tonight. Both may have played more because Marcus Jackson and true freshman Coleman Thomas were banged up, how much we do not know.
But none of it made any difference.
Ole Miss is a very, very good defense. We knew this coming in and we know it going out. Their defensive line against our offensive line will probably be the biggest mismatch of the year for the Vols. Justin Worley was sacked seven times and the Vols finished level at zero yards rushing. Jalen Hurd did have a couple nice runs to finish with 13 carries for 40 yards.
The offensive line is going to be an issue every single week; Chattanooga showed us that. But when the Vols compound it with turnovers, you're going to get what you saw tonight. Four Volunteer giveaways, including a dagger on a kickoff return by Evan Berry in a 17-3 game, helped the Rebels put 34 points on the board.
Those 34 points are a disservice to the efforts of the Volunteer defense, who held the Rebels to 4.9 yards per play; this is the lowest offensive output for Ole Miss all year. The Vols were eventually broken by short fields and almost certainly fatigue; Ole Miss did most of its work late in converting 7 of 20 third downs. Vince Sanders did a bunch of damage on freshman Emmanuel Moseley in the first half with four catches for 108 yards and a touchdown, breaking open a 3-0 game.
Tennessee's defense will play well enough to give the Vols a chance to compete the rest of the way home. The good news for the Vols is they won't play a defensive front this good the rest of the way home, and after facing Alabama next week the degree of difficulty eases up significantly.
The bad news is potentially very bad: Justin Worley left the game in the fourth quarter with a shoulder injury, and Vol fans will spend the next few minutes or hours or however long it takes holding their breath. This was Worley's worst game of the year, and he is still by far Tennessee's best option and still the most important part of its offense having a chance to get bowl eligible.
Still, every week will be a challenge the rest of the year because of the offensive line. It is what it is and a quick cure isn't coming. You can still hope for improvement (again, by default by not playing Ole Miss again) but this is what happens when you have no returning experience and two of your starters are true freshmen.
This is also a good time to remember the Vols are playing 23 true freshmen and other than A.J. Johnson all of their best players are sophomores, and just did so at the #3 team in the country. Don't lose the story just because you don't like this chapter. This chapter is playing out as difficult as we all thought it would and as difficult as it was always going to be. The future is still very bright.
In the present...I hope Justin Worley is healthy. Tennessee's defense doesn't need any more pressure or any more reason to lose its drive.
We can give ourselves a chance to win some of these games the rest of the year. But tonight wasn't one of them, and with our offensive line it may have never been.
Improvement is coming as fast as it can. For now, the Vols can only move on to another one of the year's most difficult challenges. As such, it will not be Tennessee's best opportunity for victory this year. But it is without question the season's biggest opportunity.