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Three concerns for Tennessee coming out of the Music City Bowl

NCAA Football: Music City Bowl-Purdue at Tennessee Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Tennessee came out firing on all cylinders in the first quarter against an undermanned Purdue team, and then they fell apart. The Boilermakers came storming back in the second quarter, and it was a dogfight from there.

The Volunteers had plenty of chances to put this one away, but instead, the game was decided by a blown call in overtime. It was an incredibly frustrating way to end such a successful season.

The bad call is rightfully getting all the headlines, but let’s dig a little deeper into some other issues that cost Tennessee a win on Thursday.

Heupel’s late game management

Think back to the Chase McGrath field goal attempt for the win — it didn’t have to be a 56 yarder. Tennessee took back to back deep shots, which as a holder of a couple of Tennessee -5.5 tickets, I did appreciate. It didn’t make much sense from a winning the game perspective though.

Tennessee started that drive running the ball and was getting 5-6 yards per carry. It seemed like a smart move to stick with the higher percentage looks in an attempt to get an easy field goal attempt. I do realize that this could have simply been a read by Hooker, and the plays were open, particularly the one to Velus Jones. But getting another 10 yards out of those couple of plays would have been huge.

“Right on the edge there,” Heupel said of the 56 yard attempt. “Coach Ek believed in it. The biggest thing was Chase did too. He had a look in his eye where he wanted the opportunity to go drain it. He gave it a hell of a run. Disappointed we didn’t get the ball just a little bit closer for him. That’s on me.”

One other thing that I’ll mention here is the short yardage and goalline playcalling. It leaves something to be desired. As a fanbase, we were all scared by Butch Jones running out of the gun on 4th and inches. That happened on a big fourth down against Purdue and it’s happened in previous games.

Furthermore, at a point where Tennessee was finally able to get something going on the ground, Heupel dialed up a first down pass in overtime from the two yard line. It ended up in a sack, putting the Volunteers in the position of having to go for it on fourth down with everything on the line. It seemed like a strange call to me, considering how out of sync the passing attack was and the momentum that the rushing attack had.

While I think we’re all in on this staff schematically, some in-game play-calls have left us scratching our heads. It’s an overall minor gripe coming out of a great offensive season.

Second quarter woes

First quarter: Tennessee 21, Purdue 7

Second quarter: Tennessee 21, Purdue 23

And it could have been worse. A lot worse actually. Tennessee played bend but don’t break defense in the redzone, forcing Purdue to settle for three field goals.

What happened? The offense looked unstoppable after the first quarter, but they could hardly complete a pass in the second quarter. It looked like the Volunteers had several miscommunications, as Hooker sailed several passes where nobody was home.

To be clear, it’s nothing new. Tennessee has come out and pounded teams in the first quarter only to fall flat in the second quarter pretty much all season long. It’s a trend that Josh Heupel must fix going into 2022.

“Completely out of the ordinary,” Heupel said of Tennessee’s second quarter. “I didn’t feel like in the second quarter we executed some simple things very well. We had a couple things that had a chance to be explosive plays, we don’t execute on them. You have some simple things in third-down situations that we don’t execute. Not taking anything away from Purdue, but we weren’t very good in that quarter. I thought there were some things that, maybe the layoff, just uncharacteristic from us. From how we were playing later in the football season.”

Roster concerns

Josh Heupel was probably texting support staffers mid-game and telling them to get to work in the transfer portal on cornerbacks. What a brutal showing it was for Warren Burrell, who was picked on all day long. The officials called this game super tight, which didn’t help, but too many times the Volunteers were completely roasted down the field for huge chunks.

Alontae Taylor and Theo Jackson are gone, and the only current reinforcements are JUCO cornerback Desmond Williams and three-star Christian Harrison. After Burrell’s struggles in 2021, Tennessee badly needs to add another impact player at that position.

Brandon Turnage and Kenneth George were also out against Purdue, which clearly created some depth issues. No word as to why, either.

Linebacker appears to be another trouble spot defensively too, and Tennessee didn’t do much in the 2022 class to address that need. If I’m Heupel, I’m finding a way to add a corner, linebacker and perhaps a safety too depending on what Trevon Flowers decided to do.

At the end of the day, it’s just the Music City Bowl. This is not a crippling loss by any means, although it certainly is frustrating. Is it an indicator of future issues? Maybe. But maybe not. This roster will be churned a bit as players decide to come and go.

Heupel’s year one Tennessee team set the program record for points scored in a single season during this game, to put things into perspective. The Volunteers weren’t supposed to be in this spot to begin with, and the 2021 season was an absolutely success, period.

However, the issues listed above are clear areas that need to be cleaned up heading into 2022. Tennessee is likely going to be a trendy pick to claim the second spot in the SEC East, considering what they have returning and the current status of Florida. In order to take that next step, they’re going to have to play more complete games, and fix up clear roster needs on the defensive side of the ball.