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Vols still lack the depth to move past "moral victories"

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The Vols have the starters to compete with any team they play. But it's their depth that is keeping them from winning close games.

John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Kudos to Tennessee Volunteers head coach Butch Jones for saying after the 19-14 gut-wrenching loss to Alabama, Tennessee's most hated rival, this Saturday that there are no "moral victories" at the University of Tennessee. But aside from a win over a ranked Georgia squad two weeks ago, those types of "victories" have come far more often than real ones.

The Vols have lost four times so far in 2015, and all four losses have been one possession games. The largest margin of victory in any of Tennessee's losses was by 7 points in double overtime to Oklahoma in the second game of the season. Tennessee has lost four games by a total of 17 points (by 7 to Oklahoma, by 1 to Florida, by 4 to Arkansas, and by 5 to Alabama), and in three of those four games the Vols had a fourth quarter lead. Tennessee has consistently been unable to finish close games (with the exception being the Georgia game), and while coaching and schemes have certainly played their part in the losses, depth is still one of the main contributors to the problem.

Using youth and inexperience as excuses why the Vols still can't close out games isn't something that stands up to reason. Florida has a young roster, is 6-1, and beat Tennessee in a close game late in the fourth quarter. But the one thing Tennessee still doesn't have in 2015 is a lot of depth, especially at certain positions.

Injuries have decimated what little depth the Vols had at the beginning of the season. Rashaan Gaulden, OL Marcus Jackson, OL Mack Crowder, OL Jashon Robertson, OL Brett Kendrick, WR Marquez North, WR Jason Croom, DB LaDarrell McNeil, DE Curt Maggitt, and DT Shy Tuttle have all missed either a handful of games or are now out for the whole year. All teams deal with injuries, but the Vols already had shaky depth at most positions, and now that depth is being tested. Regardless if the depth is young or not, that amount of injuries will affect any team's depth.

While defensive line may have more depth than most of the positions on the roster, the offensive line is still suffering from lack of experienced depth. Both sides of the line are probably the two units where lack of experience affects performance the most because of players having to learn schemes and bulk up in the weight room, and the Vols are having to depend on freshmen on both sides of the line thanks to injuries to upperclassmen. While the defensive line finally began to show their potential against Alabama, the offensive line came unglued at the worst possible time. The offensive line had done an acceptable job of protecting quarterback Joshua Dobbs most of the game and had opened up enough holes for the running backs, but the fourth quarter showed the lack of depth when Alabama's front seven was able to penetrate on every play of Tennessee's short final drive, ultimately sacking Dobbs and forcing a game-clinching fumble.

Not only did the lines show Tennessee's lack of depth, but the secondary displayed it as well. Cam Sutton was burned more often than usual against Alabama because he was forced to do more because Malik Foreman and Emmanuel Moseley have been liabilities at times for the Vols this season, and they proved to be yet again on Saturday. Justin Martin took a step forward in his first start of the season against the Crimson Tide, but the secondary is still not where it needs to be. Losing probable nickel cornerback starter Rashaan Gaulden before the season started was a big blow, and it's because of that injury that Foreman has been used as much as he has. Aside from the four aforementioned corners, the Vols have just two other scholarship cornerbacks on the roster, and both those corners, Micah Abernathy and Darrell Miller, are true freshman.

Was Saturday's loss to Alabama a moral victory? That's debatable. But regardless of how you feel about it, the Vols were competitive in all four quarters against the Tide for the first time in several years, and they've been competitive in every game this season. But when crunch time comes, the Vols have withered more often than they've thrived this season, and that's due in large part to depth. Yes, there are many other factors at play when it comes to why the Vols have failed to seal the deal late in games, but the one issue that can't be fixed immediately this season is depth.

It's become a narrative all too familiar for Vol fans, but "waiting till next year" for the Vols to finally break through and win these games seems the best response. Is it frustrating? Yes. Should that be the case at this point? Probably not. But it's where the Vols are in 2015.

Tennessee has the talent to play with every single team in the SEC, and they have so far. Now they just need the same quality players waiting on the sideline as they have playing on the field.