Last week, despite all the good Tennessee did, the story was seven turnovers. There were plenty of other details, but when you give it away seven times, it’s hard to make the Vol narrative about anything else.
Today, despite all the bad Tennessee did and all the Alabama Alabama did, the story for Tennessee is health. There were plenty of other details, but when you become as depleted as the Vols became during this game, it’s hard to make the Vol narrative about anything else.
This is in no way to suggest the outcome would have automatically been different if the Vol defense and offensive line were at full strength or anything like that. The Tide need no validation from us or anyone and they certainly looked the #1 part today. Tennessee looked like a team playing that many second, third, and fourth-string players will tend to look against Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide.
When Tennessee beat Florida at the beginning of this four week gauntlet, we talked about how it seemed in the first half of that game that health would be the narrative going forward. But the Vols beat the Gators, then beat the Dawgs, then almost beat the Aggies despite losing three of their four best defenders, two of them first-team preseason All-SEC. We got used to seeing Bob Shoop and this defense deal with the loss in quality, and the events of the last month have been so wild we’ve probably been too busy to truly give them enough credit.
But against Texas A&M it became about quantity. The defense could make it work against Florida and Georgia and A&M without Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Darrin Kirkland Jr., and Cam Sutton. We thought Kirkland might return today, but he didn’t even dress. And in the aftermath of last week’s battle, the Vols had to try to make it work against Alabama without those three plus Cortez McDowell and Malik Foreman, plus Danny O’Brien who was dismissed during the week and then Kahlil McKenzie who was injured during today’s game. At defensive tackle the Vols were spelling Kendal Vickers and Shy Tuttle with Kyle Phillips, a converted defensive end, and Quay Picou, who had zero tackles coming into today’s game.
The result: Alabama ran 49 times for 438 yards, an astounding 8.9 yards per carry.
On the other side of the ball, Tennessee’s offensive line got back in the spotlight through little fault of their own. We saw the value of having your best five on the field together in the first three games of the year, as Chance Hall’s absence forced Coleman Thomas into action on a bum ankle and UT struggled to move the ball on the likes of Appalachian State. Then the Vols got Hall healthy and exploded against the Gators, Dawgs, and Aggies. But against A&M the Vols lost Dylan Wiesman and Jashon Robertson. And early in today’s contest, the Vols lost Brett Kendrick and Hall again. In their place the Vols played, left to right, redshirt freshman Drew Richmond, redshirt freshman Venzell Boulware, Coleman Thomas at center, Jack Jones, and true freshman Marcus Tatum. Tatum came in the game at the expense of his redshirt, meaning his first snap as a Vol came while trying to block Alabama.
The result: Tennessee gained 163 yards.
The offense was non-existent throughout the day with both tackles going down early and a third having to play center. You can criticize play-calling or touches for Kamara or any other detail you like, but at the end of the day Tennessee is trying to move the ball on Bama’s defense with that line. Good luck.
The defense was stronger for longer, scoring a pair of turnovers thanks to the incredible play of Derek Barnett (and an assist from Shy Tuttle) and watching a Bama field goal sail wide. Some of those reserves had their moments; Elliott Berry had several. They gave Tennessee’s offense the ball down only 21-7 early in the third quarter. The Tide got it back with ten minutes left in the same period, and outscored the Vols 28-3 over the next 14 minutes of game time. The dam broke.
The good news is, many of its pieces can be repaired. Butch Jones has shut down most of the injury talk, but we can expect the Vols to get a number of these guys healthy during the bye, starting with Kirkland. The areas of greatest concern now shift from linebacker and corner to defensive tackle and offensive line. At defensive tackle the Vols still have firepower in the starting lineup but a ton of inexperience behind them. On the offensive line we only really know Dylan Wiesman is dealing with a concussion; the fates of Robertson, Hall, and Kendrick are more uncertain.
Tennessee’s focus will shift to South Carolina with an eye on the Gators, who must lose one of Georgia, South Carolina, Arkansas, or LSU to put the Vols back on top of the SEC East standings. Butch Jones said on his postgame radio show tonight the Vols had earned the opportunity to play championship football down the stretch, and he’s right: the Vols will need to run the table against a set of opponents they should find more to their liking than what they’ve seen the last four weeks, a group of foes more manageable if second and third teamers are pressed into service once more.
If the Vols can navigate all that and Florida fails to do the same, Tennessee will find themselves in Atlanta and will probably find Alabama waiting. We don’t know if a fuller-strength Tennessee can make enough of a difference. But we do know we’d love to find out.
Get healthy where you can. Get better where you can’t. And we’ll see if the combination of the two will lead to Atlanta and Alabama again.