Another road game against a top five opponent, another lopsided loss. Did the Vols look significantly worse, or were their opponents just significantly better? We try to sort it out in this week's trending report.
- Opportunity. The Vols have a very good Alabama team coming into Neyland on Saturday. But here's the thing: Alabama isn't as good as Ole Miss. But a win--or even a competitive performance--against Alabama would do a lot more for the psyche of the team and of the fans than one against Ole Miss would've. It's more than just the rivalry, it's that Alabama has been the team to beat for years now, and Ole Miss hasn't. So the Vols have an easier opponent but would get more mileage out of a good performance. And they're playing a night game at home. There is no better chance to make a huge statement.
- Wear and tear. [Spoiler: this is one of these "trending up" that isn't good.] When you lack depth, wear and tear is one of your biggest enemies. Last year, Tennessee played a pair of excellent games against quality opponents in October but then fell off a cliff late in the season. They lost three consecutive blowouts against Alabama, Missouri, and Auburn and then dropped an ugly game to a mediocre Vanderbilt team. But because the Vols already had a win against South Carolina--who finished in the top five--they still had some positive momentum to carry into the offseason. After dropping a heartbreaker to Georgia and losing an ugly contest against Florida, the Vols don't have that big win this year, so they still need it somewhere in the last five games of the season. The schedule is easier this year, but mental and physical fatigue will be a dangerous enemy. If the team gets blown out by Alabama and enters the South Carolina/Missouri/Kentucky stretch mentally and physically exhausted, there's a real chance of a 4-8 or 5-7 season, and either one of those are liable to result in a very long offseason. Tennessee's quarterback is banged up, three of the top six offensive linemen are battling injuries, and the linebackers play far too many snaps. This is dangerous territory, and the Vols desperately need to respond.
- Hero Worley. After the Georgia game, it looked like Justin Worley had taken massive strides forward in 2014 and was the man to lead the Tennessee offense. Not to dominance, but to enough competence to keep the Vols in games while letting the defense do its thing. Even though his stats looked bad against Oklahoma, Worley played a mostly good game (one horrific end zone INT aside), and against Georgia, he gave Tennessee a chance to win. Against Florida, it was a different story. A couple major mistakes by the senior quarterback went a long way towards costing the Vols the game. Lest we look at that game as an anomaly, against Ole Miss, Worley averaged just 5.6 yards per attempt and threw three interceptions. Tennessee's defense is good enough that Game Manager Worley will give them a chance to win against almost everyone left on the schedule. But Hero Worley puts the defense in bad situations time and time again. Worley is not good enough to win games by himself, and the more he tries to do so, the worse it is for Tennessee.
- Taking advantage of schedule factors. Last year, Tennessee went into the South Carolina game off a bye, while the Gamecocks were between two SEC road trips and were looking ahead to a big game against undefeated Missouri. This year, Tennessee went into the Ole Miss game off an FCS opponent, while the Rebels were between two SEC road trips in the midst of one of the most brutal five-game stretches around and were looking ahead to a big game against rival LSU. Last year, the Vols took full advantage. This year, not so much.
- The offensive line. Yeah, they allowed seven sacks. Yeah, they contributed to Worley throwing three picks. Yeah, the running game finished with zero yards. But when you give up five sacks to an FCS opponent, what do you expect against one of the best defenses in the country? This week wasn't a big step down, it was a big step up in quality of competition. The fact remains that the line hasn't made noticeable improvements over the course of the season, and that's a problem, but after Florida and Chattanooga, this game went pretty much as expected.
- The defense (starters). Ole Miss went three-and-out on six of their first seven drives. The Vols held the Rebels to their lowest yards-per-play output of the season (and this is a team that has played Alabama). This would be in the "trending up" section except that it's expected at this point. Tennessee's starting defense is good. And next year it should be even better.
- The defense (depth). While the 34 points on the scoreboard is extremely unfair to a defense that played well (this is where we note that two of those touchdown drives covered 35 or fewer yards), the fact remains that they dropped off significantly after the first 1.5 quarters. The same thing happened against Georgia. You could look at this and wonder about John Jancek's ability to handle his opponents' adjustments, but I don't think that is the right place to look. The fact is, Tennessee's depth is razor thin. The starters are playing way too many snaps. And both Georgia and Ole Miss starting getting their offenses rolling during a sequence of three-and-outs for the Tennessee offense. All signs point to depth as the issue. And if that wasn't conclusive enough, the big matchup that Ole Miss was able to leverage into second quarter offense was against Tennessee's #4 corner. Depth.