After ugly losses to Vanderbilt knocked Tennessee out of contention for bowl bids the last two years, the Vols came out on the right side of an ugly game this year, securing their first bowl bid since 2010 with a 24-17 win Saturday in Nashville. What looked better for Tennessee this weekend? What looked worse? We take a look in this week's Trending Report.
- Returning to the postseason. It was ugly, but it was a win, and it was the sixth win of the season for the first time in a long time. It was hard to be very excited about the play of the game itself, but the result is extra practice time and one more game, and that at least is a huge step forward.
- Breaking a punt return. It seems like it's been forever since the last time the Vols took a punt to the house (actually, it's been since Cordarrelle), but Cam Sutton did it on Saturday, and Tennessee needed it. Sutton's score gave the Vols a lead to open the game and provided the final margin of victory.
- Jalen Hurd Appreciation. Receivers have been in and out all season, and Tennessee's offense hasn't changed a whole bunch--their best performances of the season were with Josh Smith missing and Marquez North essentially missing--but Jalen Hurd goes down and the Vols suddenly can't move the ball against one of the worst defenses on their schedule. We knew the line was bad, but sometimes you don't notice how many issues Hurd disguises until you miss him for a few quarters. The run game was ineffective, and Vanderbilt's pass rush (three sacks) was a bigger problem than any of the last five opponents outside of Missouri.
- Neyland West. After being quickly quieted in their last trip to Vanderbilt Stadium, Tennessee faithful took over on Saturday, turning the TV side of the stadium bright orange and chanting Eric Berry's name so rousingly that the announcers took notice during a stoppage in the second half.
- Faith in Josh Dobbs as a passer. Dobbs has had some very good games at quarterback this season, and Butch Jones has responded by complaining at length about Dobbs' consistency. After this week, I believe him. 4.6 yards per attempt. 0 touchdowns. 2 interceptions. And against a secondary that was not overly frightening. Dobbs was a disaster passing the ball against Vanderbilt, and nothing shows that more clearly than the play-calling on the last drive, where Tennessee faced a 3rd and 9 at the Vanderbilt 33 and elected to run Dobbs up the middle. Everybody in the stadium knew what was coming--all six of the previous plays had been runs, and five of them were quarterback runs--and a first down would've come close to icing the game, but the Vols elected to run up the middle and punt rather than send Dobbs back to pass. That's some serious lack of trust, and it's hard to say it wasn't warranted.
- Actually, faith in any part of the offense other than Dobbs' running. Dobbs had 4.5 yards per pass against a defense giving up 7.6. Marlin Lane had 3.2 yards per carry against a team giving up 4.4. Tennessee's only two offensive touchdowns came from the legs of Dobbs, and on Tennessee's final drive, six of the seven plays were called quarterback runs. Dobbs' elusiveness was enough for Tennessee to scrape by, but most of the offense was atrocious against a defense that should not have intimidated anyone. Even with Dobbs' running, the Vols managed just 4.1 yards per play, well below their average of 4.8 and even farther below Vanderbilt's defensive average of 5.7. They got just 17 points on five trips inside the Vandy 40, lowering an average that had already dropped into the bottom third of the country the week before. There's no way to dress this up--Saturday's performance was a hideous one by the Tennessee offense.
- Letting Vanderbilt sustain drives. Vanderbilt didn't get many yards, but they did have two touchdown drives of more than 70 yards. In the Dores' first eleven games, they had just nine touchdown drives of more than 70 yards. If you take out two late fourth quarter drives against backups in blowout losses and one drive against FCS Charleston Southern, the Dores had six touchdown drives of more than 70 yards in ten games--four against Old Dominion, and two against everyone else. That "against everybody else" number doubled on Saturday. The overall numbers don't look terrible for the defense, but against an opponent that had struggled so mightily to create offense, it wasn't a great showing by the Tennessee D.
- Playing well when you're supposed to win. This was a positive trend against Kentucky, as the Vols took care of business in dominating fashion, but in a game expected to be much less competitive against Vanderbilt, Tennessee played down to the level of competition and didn't secure the victory until the last minute of the game. Better Tennessee teams have done this against bad Vandy and Kentucky teams, but this is not a trend that Vols fans want to see continue.
- Good feelings going into 2015. There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about a team returning 18 starters, but the "early favorite to win the SEC East" talk has calmed down a bit after the offense took several steps back against Missouri and Vanderbilt. Dobbs has an incredibly high ceiling, but his consistency issues have become quite obvious in the last two games, and offensive line play has a millstone around the Vols' neck. Tennessee can bring back some of the good feelings with a solid bowl performance, and it's certainly not insane to expect a true sophomore quarterback to take a major step forward in his junior season, but questions about the line play will linger throughout the offseason, planting doubt in the minds of the Tennessee faithful.
- Pass rush. They only got three sacks on Saturday, but the Tennessee pass rush was as threatening as always. Amidst all the questions about the offense, the quality of the pass rush has flown relatively under the radar this season, but Curt Maggitt and Derek Barnett both added to their tally against Vanderbilt to finish 2nd and 4th in sacks in the SEC. This has been a strength all season, and it was still a strength in Nashville.