Tennessee football: How is lack of depth hurting Vols?
Alabama is the class of the SEC and has been since Nick Saban’s third year in Tuscaloosa.
Yes, there have been a few moments in the sun for Auburn, Georgia and LSU, but overall the conference has been the Crimson Tide’s property for a decade and a half.
On Saturday night the Tennessee Volunteers gave the Crimson Tide a real battle. The Vols were converting big chunk plays. A 39-yard pass from Hendon Hooker to Cedric Tillman led to a Velus Jones Jr. touchdown. A 57 yard hookup between Hooker and JaVonta Payton was good for another score. Hooker completed 73% of his passes in the first half. The UT defense, overmatched as it often is, forced a turnover.
In the second half the defense forced two straight three and outs, then blocked a Bama punt. The offense scored on a 70-yard pass from Hooker to Tillman. Tennessee was only down 7 points with 13 minutes to play.
The Vols showed the nation that they can play for with the Crimson Tide … but not for 60 minutes. The Vols of course aren’t alone. Not many teams can.
Tennessee’s roster, devastated by the transfer portal, is not without talent. Hooker is one of the best quarterbacks in the conference. Jones, Payton and banged-up running back Tiyon Evans are gamebreakers. The offensive line has some NFL level talent. Linebacker Jeremy Banks, edge rusher Tyler Baron and lineman Matthew Butler create havoc for opposing offenses.
The problem for the Vols at the moment is that there simply aren’t enough of those guys on Tennessee’s sideline. When those standouts need a breather, there is an absence of players that can pick up the slack at that same level of effectiveness.
Alabama, on the other hand, just keeps cycling the 4- and 5-star athletes they have on the bench onto the field. The machine keeps rolling along.
But maybe, just maybe, Tennessee’s machine has sprung to life.
Since 2007 the Tennessee/Alabama series hasn’t been close at all. The Crimson Tide have won all 15 meetings. In 2009 a blocked field goal kept the Vols from winning and in 2015 Tennessee couldn’t hold onto a slim lead in the final minutes. Otherwise these games have been blowouts.
Yes, I guess you can make a case that the 2019 game was close before Jarrett Guarantano went rogue and the Vols lost by 22. But remember, the Tide didn’t have star quarterback Tua Tagovailoa for most of the evening after he was knocked out of the game in the first half.
On Saturday night the Vols lost by 28 points, but they were more competitive than in the meeting 2 years ago.
The good news for Tennessee is that through the first 8 games of his tenure, head coach Josh Heupel has all sorts of evidence to show recruits that things are turning around in Knoxville. Prospects who play on offense see a fun, fast-paced system. Prospects that play defense see the opportunity to play sooner than later.
Football simply is too physical a sport to expect players to be on the field for as many snaps as the Vols defense has been this season, especially against Ole Miss (101) and the Tide (92).
Also, the Alabama game was the Vols’ 8th in 8 weeks. With a roster that isn’t anywhere near full strength. Against the 4th-ranked team in the country. The result probably wouldn’t have been any different had the bye week been before the Alabama game instead of after, but it likely would have been closer.
The effort is there for Tennessee. Long-time watchers of this program know that hasn’t always been the case for the Vols.
The result they crave is coming. It’s just a matter of when.