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Defensive issues finally bite Tennessee

Just an unreal bad night in Columbia.

NCAA Football: Tennessee at South Carolina Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

On a day full of near misses atop the College Football Playoff rankings, it was Tennessee that ended up taking the fall.

The Volunteers went down in Columbia, losing to South Carolina 63-38.

You read that right. Sixty-three to thirty-eight. Everything was in front of Tennessee. Two wins and you’re in. Instead, they fell flat on their face.

From the very beginning, it was evident that the defense was going to be an issue. No worries though — Tennessee’s offense is so good that it typically doesn’t matter.

That was not the case tonight.

First off, Spencer Rattler was brilliant. It’s important not to take too much away from his performance tonight, which was truly special. Early on, it was Rattler dropping dimes down the field and beating man coverage down the sidelines. As the game went on, it became more about Tennessee’s inability to adjust, get any pressure at all, or even execute the simplest of coverage scheme.

Tim Banks’ unit was absolutely torched on Saturday night, and frankly he didn’t ever find a single thing to do about it. The secondary had been a problem all year long, but it was glossed over by a pretty good defensive front that typically has been able to get pressure. The defense had actually come up big in occasional spots, making key plays in key moments throughout the year to make up for some surrendered big plays.

Not tonight, not even close.

“They’ve got big, physical wideouts on the outside,” Josh Heupel said after the loss. “I felt like we would have an opportunity to matchup out there. We played man. We played zone. Tim (Banks) tried to find an answer to it and at the end of the day, we didn’t. The run game at the beginning of the game in particular. Hit us with a bit of a wildcat, but we anticipated some of those things. The power read got us a couple of times early. At the end of the day we didn’t defend anything the way that you need to and you can’t play in this league that way.”

Tennessee brought six, seven guys at Rattler — nothing doing. Rattler was able to dance out of it, or the South Carolina offensive line was able to hold up. Banks also tried keeping everything in front of the secondary with a four man rush, but Rattler still worked his way down the field with a lack of pressure.

This was a guy that had struggled all season long, but also a guy that was talked about as a top NFL draft pick a couple of years ago. We saw that guy tonight — or perhaps Tennessee made him look like that guy.

The red flags had been there for this defense. A struggling Anthony Richardson lit them up, Bryce Young destroyed them, Kedon Slovis had his way too early in the year before he got hurt. Banks called his defense exactly how he was instructed to do so — risky and aggressive. That aggression didn’t get home tonight, honestly didn’t even get close.

Being Josh Heupel’s defensive coordinator is difficult, let’s be real. You have limited time on the sidelines with the offensive tempo, creating a big need for developed depth. It’s not a job for everyone, but still — at this point, you’ve got to wonder if some defensive staff changes are on the horizon.

Tennessee entered the day with the 85th ranked defense in the country. Heupel is going to play in some track meets, but you also can’t tell me that’s the best this program can do. Tennessee has some personnel issues in the secondary, and perhaps it’s fair to allow Willie Martinez and Tim Banks to get more of their guys in. But on Saturday night in Columbia, it was worse than unacceptable — it was flat out embarrassing. This was a team that entered the night ranked 92nd in total offense. 92nd!

Everything Tennessee was supposed to do to South Carolina? Well, South Carolina did just that to Tennessee.

Perspective is everything. Tennessee fans would take a 10-2 season and run if asked three months ago. But the way this all ended? 63 points to South Carolina? Yeah, Josh Heupel has some evaluating to do, and I know exactly where I would start.