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In Tennessee’s loss to Alabama, a season-long trend helped the Vols snatch defeat from the jaws of victory

The play in the picture looks like it belongs in an MMA cage match

Tennessee v Alabama Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

This season, the Volunteers rank 79th in the country in penalties per-game, at 6.3. Out of 133 teams, one might not think that figure is all that troubling. But not all penalties are created equally, and this has become a trend for Tennessee teams coached under Josh Heupel. The Vols were the 71st-most penalized team in 2021, having 6.1 yellow bean bags tossed their way. Then, in 2022, UT finished the season 121st with 7.7 flags thrown per-game.

Penalty Yardage and rank

  • 2021: 50.2 yards per-game — ranked 55th in the country (Including the Music City Bowl, when the Vols got beat by Purdue and committed 14 penalties for 128 yards — Purdue committed five for 61 yards — in a game TN lost by a field goal).
  • 2022: 66.3 yard per-game — ranked 120th in the country (including the win against Clemson in the bowl game, when UT committed nine penalties for 105 yards while Clemson committed just four for 45 yards).
  • 2023 (so far): 54.5 — ranked 87th in the country

The penalties and negative yardage they create seem to be getting worse though Heupel’s tenure, with a slight downtick this season. Then you have the last two games, when the Vols had little to no margin for error, and in both games, committed two consecutive or near-consecutive penalties on key drives in the games.

Tennessee had 12 flags thrown on them against Texas A&M for -115 yards. Luckily, the Aggies committed 11 penalties of their own for 90 negative yards.

McCallan Castles killed a drive in the second quarter with a holding penalty as Tennessee was trying to work its way back from a three-point deficit at that juncture of the game.

In the third, just after Walter Nolen’s injury, Javontez Spraggins put the Vols out of scoring range with a 15-yard facemask call, but a Jaylen Wright 16-yard run on third-and-22 and two rushing plays for seven yards prior put Tennessee in position for a Charles Campbell 31-yard FG that made the game 17-14, Vols.

By far the worst sequence of events was Ollie Lane getting flagged for holding calls on twice on Tennessee’s final possession of the second half, as UT was trying to take the lead or tie the game. The first call came after the offense popped off two-straight 15-yard gains, and the second came on 3rd-and-11 at the Aggies’ 39 yard-line. The Vols went into halftime down 10-7.

The Vols got away with such a sloppy game thanks to their running game and their defense, but against Alabama, they had no such margin for error.

Tennessee had eight penalties for 55 yards against Alabama, while the Crimson Tide curiously were flagged just once for five yards.

Again, a Tennessee player was called for two penalties on one drive. Against the Tide, it was Omarr Norman-Lott who got caught jumping offsides on two consecutive snaps. I think they may have “officially,” gone back and flagged James Pearce for the call, but there was no question Norman-Lott was across the line of scrimmage on both plays. That was the drive that gave Alabama a 20-17 lead, and the Fighting Elephants never looked back as they pummeled UT into the ground during the game’s final minutes.

With Lane — there’s no excuse. The Vols had A&M in Neyland, and In total, five of UT’s seven penalties came from an offensive linemen. Errors like that and the other five penalties could very well get you beat in your own house.

Against Bama, we’re also dealing with the issue of the Vols not being able to win on the road, as Tennessee has lost its last four-straight true-road games. Pair that with four penalties on the offense and four penalties against the defense, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for a fifth-straight loss on the away from Neyland. The defense giving up 10 free yards on the possession that lost the Vols the lead for good just compounds the inability to win away from home.

Dayne Davis had two penalties on a Volunteer drive with about eight minutes left in the game against Alabama on Saturday, too. They were in the fourth quarter, and largely inconsequential at that point, as the Vols gave up 10 more points in the final period and looked beaten down by the Tide’s second-half onslaught. But they still happened, and they still counted.

I’m giving Norman-Lott a pass, because he’s been a key cog in Rodney Garner’s rotation of defensive linemen and one of the Vols’ most effective interior defensive linemen Tennessee has.

But Lane and Davis — one has to question where they would be on another SEC team’s depth chart. I try to stay away from blatantly blaming players on the team, because I don’t walk their path. I don’t know the difficulties of juggling all their responsibilities. And then to have the whole world watch when you screw up after you’ve ideally been working your butt off to get better and help the the team.

On the bright side, Lane bounced back from the miserable A&M game, when PFF gave him an overall grade of 45 for blocking and 19 in pass-blocking situations to an 83 grade in the same category against the Tide with no sacks, no hits, one hurry and one pressure allowed.

I’m being very generous here, but it was a poorly officiated game Saturday, as it seems to be the case every week — here’s looking at you, Greg Sankey. But UT doesn’t have the offense to overcome self-inflicted wounds this year like it has the last two years.

I worry that this trend comes from the top down, and is a result of a lack of team discipline, but Heupel’s earned enough equity with me from the past two seasons when he had a QB who he could trust to open up the offense. So I’m giving him a pass for now, too. He’s not holding players, and he’s not jumping offsides.

We’ll see what happens during the rest of the year, but Tennessee has to cut down on the penalties and stop helping opponents beat them moving forward.