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Tennessee vs. Alabama: 10 things

Photo: UTSports.com

Tennessee (3-4, 0-4) traveled to Tuscaloosa, Ala. on Saturday, Oct. 21, and was defeated by No. 1 Alabama (8-0, 5-0) by a score of 45-7. Here are 10 things that stood out.

1.) Fourteen and counting.

It has now been 14 complete quarters without a touchdown for Tennessee’s offense. While the Vols’ defense did score today to avoid three games without a touchdown, the offense has still been shut out of the end zone for three consecutive games (Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama), plus the second half of the game against Massachusetts.

The last time Tennessee went three consecutive games without scoring an offensive touchdown? That’s going to take some digging. But it appears to be the first time it’s happened in more than 50 years. Clearly, this UT offense is historically bad. And if the Vols don’t score a touchdown in the first quarter of next week’s game at Kentucky, it will be the longest such streak among Power 5 teams in the past 10 years. UT is currently tied for that streak, with the 2015 Missouri team, at 14 quarters.

2.) You can’t write this script

With 10:46 to play in today’s game, Tennessee’s offense took possession at Alabama’s 20-yard-line after the Tide’s Xavian Marks fumbled a punt and the Vols’ Rashaan Gaulden recovered.

After a nine-yard pass from Jarrett Guarantano to Marquez Callaway and a roughing-the-passer penalty against Alabama, Tennessee found itself with a first-and-goal at the Tide’s five-yard-line. John Kelly gained two yards on first down, then appeared to find the end zone on second down, snapping Tennessee’s streak of consecutive quarters without an offensive touchdown at 13.

But video review revealed that Kelly was down at the one-yard-line. It was third-and-goal. As the Vols prepared for the third down snap, Trey Smith was called for a false start, backing the ball up to the six. Two plays later, Guarantano’s pass was intercepted by Mack Wilson.

Tennessee didn’t get to 14 quarters without an offensive touchdown without some embarrassing bungles along the way, and this sequence was simply the latest. You couldn’t write this script if you had to. It’s as though the Vols are inventing new ways not to score.

3.) Red zone woes continue

Tennessee did not get to the red zone in its shutout loss to Georgia last month. The Vols got their just once today (see above). And with Guarantano’s fourth down interception, UT remains 0-for-the-SEC in red zone execution. That’s 0-of-8 in conference play, if you’re keeping score at home. That includes 0-for-3 against Florida, 0-for-4 against South Carolina and 0-for-1 against Alabama.

Which is worse? Only finding the red zone eight times in four SEC games, or failing to score a touchdown on all eight of those trips to the red zone?

4.) More than Guarantano

This was a point after the South Carolina game, but clearly it bears repeating: Tennessee’s offense is about more than a quarterback problem. It’s hard to find many bright spots on this historically-bad Vols offense, especially after just 108 yards against Alabama. Quarterback play isn’t good, offensive line play isn’t good, receiver play isn’t good. You can’t say that John Kelly’s play isn’t good, but his stats are just as miserable as anyone’s, because he is being given no help by his teammates. Kelly finished with 63 yards on 12 carries against Alabama. That’s an average of 5.3 yards per carry, which wasn’t too bad, considering the team average was 2.1 yards per carry.

Guarantano’s nine of 16 for 44 yards and an interception was hardly a performance worth writing home about. It still appears that his mobility adds a dimension that Quinten Dormady doesn’t bring to the offense, and his stats are no worse than Dormady’s, but clearly he’s no second coming of Josh Dobbs. It’s becoming clearer with each passing game just how good Dobbs was. And we knew that, but clearly we didn’t know just how good he was. The offense hasn’t changed, but production has certainly dipped since Dobbs left for the NFL after the 2016 season. Lest we forget, last year’s Tennessee offense averaged more than 36 points per game.

So what is the problem? At some point you have to say that the offense is just architecturally bad. It isn’t working. New offensive coordinator Larry Scott certainly can’t escape scrutiny, but many of the problems that are apparent with this year’s Tennessee offense were also apparent when Mike Bajakian was the Tennessee offensive coordinator and when Mike DeBord was the offensive coordinator. Likewise, many of us believed that offensive line coach Don Mahoney was a problem. But the offensive line play is just as bad — or worse — under Walt Wells.

We can confidently say that the single biggest mistake Butch Jones made at Tennessee was not retaining offensive line coach Sam Pittman, who wound up at Arkansas and is currently at Georgia. Likewise, it was a mistake not to retain offensive coordinator Jim Chaney, who is also at Georgia these days. That 2012 Tennessee offense was pretty darned good, even if the Vols weren’t. And the 2017 Georgia offense is pretty darned good. Coincidence? Probably not.

5.) Seven vs. nine

One final point about the offense: Tennessee had seven first downs today. The Vols were forced to punt nine times, averaging 45.8 yards per punt.

Any time you have more punts than first downs, it’s a safe assumption that the outcome wasn’t positive.

6.) Gaulden’s poor judgment

It isn’t a good look when you make obscene gestures at the crowd. Daniel Bituli’s 97-yard pick-six was one of the only things Tennessee fans had to cheer about today, and Rashaan Gaulden was apparently a little too jubilant. As he escorted Bituli to the end zone, Gaulden extended both middle fingers to Alabama fans behind the end zone, and was flagged 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct.

That would’ve been a bad look if Tennessee had been up 28-7. It was even worse considering the Vols were behind 28-7 at the time. Some UT fans attempted to excuse it by pointing out the taunting gesture made by Alabama’s Bo Scarborough during last year’s Crimson Tide win in Knoxville. Scarborough’s stunt was equally classless, but certainly didn’t justify Gaulden’s taunt.

Jones called it “flat-out inexcusable” after the game, and said it would be dealt with internally. And, to his credit, Gaulden apologized to Tennessee fans, Alabama fans and his team after the game. That’s a good move on his part, because it overshadowed what was otherwise an exceptional game by him.

But here’s the problem: Jones placed Gaulden back in the game on the very next possession. That gives the appearance of a coach who isn’t trying very hard for control on his team. Considering Jones has been accused of having very poor control this season, that’s a concern.

7.) Nice play by Shamburger

True freshman defensive back Shawn Shamburger led Tennessee in tackles today, with 12. While it’s never good when a DB leads your team in tackles, Shamburger had a break-out game. A former 3-star recruit, the Moultrie, Ga., native entered Saturday’s game with just one tackle all season (against Indiana State). He also had one of just two tackles for loss that were recorded by Tennessee’s defense against Alabama.

8.) A gassed defense

Tennessee’s defense started off well enough, as has been the case in every SEC game this season. But has been the case in every SEC game this season, the Vols’ D appeared gassed by the fourth quarter. That’s a combination of various things, including a lack of depth that is a partial result of numerous injuries, and a complete failure by the Vols’ offense to sustain drives.

Two of Alabama’s first three drives ended with punts, including a three-and-out. But five of six of Tennessee’s first half possessions ended in punts, three of them three-and-outs and two more involving just one first down (the final possession of the half saw time expire).

As a result, Tennessee’s defense was gassed by the second half. The final time of possession was 34:51 to 25:09, but it was much more lopsided than that in the first half. The Vols finished with just 46 offensive snaps to Alabama’s 86. UT’s offense is failing its defense.

9.) Trying to help Butch?

Nick Saban doesn’t necessarily have a reputation as a nice guy, but it almost looked like the Alabama head coach was trying to help Tennessee’s Butch Jones. Saban, who criticized fans and the media earlier this week for the drumbeat of negativity towards Jones, inserted his freshman quarterback (Tua Tagovailoa) and a freshman runningback just five minutes into the second half, when Alabama was up 28-0. It might have been the quickest Saban has ever began to pull his starters.

The result? On the next possession, Tennessee intercepted a pass and returned it 97 yards for a score. That made it 28-7. Technically, the game was still in question. But Saban stuck with his backup playmakers. It was almost as if Saban was trying to avoid covering the spread of -36.5.

By late in the third quarter, Alabama had inserted its entire second string offensive line. But the Crimson Tide continued to move the football with relative ease against a Tennessee defense that was by then gassed. With its backups in the game, Alabama out-scored Tennessee 17-7. And covered the spread.

A trio of South Carolina fans who made the trip to Neyland Stadium last week made headlines by wearing t-shirts that read “Keep Butch,” a counter to the t-shirts worn by some UT fans that read “Fire Butch.” You couldn’t help but wonder during the second half of Saturday’s game if Saban’s “Keep Butch” t-shirt was seen in the form of his quick insertion of his backup playmakers. (That’s only a partial joke.)

10.) Reading too much into Currie’s sideline appearance?

Vol Twitter made much of Tennessee athletics director John Currie’s trip to the sideline in the final minutes of Saturday’s game. Currie stayed on the field until most of the players and staff had entered the locker room.

It isn’t unusual for athletics directors to join their teams on the sideline near the end of games (remember the infamous picture of Butch Jones and Dave Hart chest-bumping after the Vols’ upset of No. 11 South Carolina in 2013?). So what did Currie’s appearance mean? Did it mean anything at all?

Probably not. Butch Jones is clearly on borrowed time. Even if the Vols could manage five consecutive wins to end the season with an 8-4 record — and with this offense, that isn’t going to happen — Jones is on his way out. As AllThingsVol reported Friday, it appears as though negotiations for an altered buyout of Jones’ remaining contract have already commenced.

Was this Jones’ final game as Tennessee’s coach? We don’t really think so. But if it was, reports will likely emerge by Sunday and a news conference will be scheduled for Monday or Tuesday. It’s much more likely, we think, that Jones coaches the Vols at Kentucky next week. But if the Vols lose in Lexington, it becomes very unlikely that Jones is still the coach when UT hosts Southern Miss for homecoming to kick off the final month of the college football season.

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