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Tennessee vs. Southern Miss: 10 points

Photo: UTSports.com

1.) Still an abysmal offense

Tennessee is finally scoring touchdowns in the red zone. If you’re an eternal optimist, take that as one of the baby steps the Vols need to get back on track offensively. Because there was a time this season when Team 121 was decidedly inept at scoring touchdowns in the red zone. Against Southern Miss, the Vols scored touchdowns on three of four red zone possessions.

If you’re a pessimist instead of an optimist, you probably don’t need to be reminded that Tennessee’s longest touchdown drive was 49 yards. That was the game’s opening possession, after Evan Berry signed and stamped his return from injury with an exclamation point, returning the opening kickoff to Southern Miss’s 49-yard-line. After that, Tennessee needed a pair of Southern Miss turnovers to find the end zone, with touchdown “drives” of 20 and 19 yards. In fact, it could easily be argued that if not for those two second half turnovers by the Golden Eagles, Tennessee would have been in danger of losing Saturday’s game.

The bottom line? Tennessee finished with 210 yards of offense against a team that gave up 417 yards to UAB last week. That is unacceptable, injuries not withstanding.

2.) Where was the running game?

Tennessee finished with just 95 yards on the ground in Saturday’s game against Southern Miss. The Golden Eagles’ rush defense isn’t bad; they rank No. 22 nationally, giving up 124 yards per game. Stats can be misleading, however. Remember that Southern Miss plays a Conference USA schedule. They’re hardly defending rushing attacks that are of an SEC caliber on a week-in, week-out basis. With that said, Kentucky only had 78 rushing yards against the Golden Eagles.

But for a team like Tennessee, which does not have much of a down-the-field passing game, the rushing attack is especially important. Averaging 2.5 yards per carry against a C-USA defense isn’t encouraging.

Much of the current rushing woes can of course be blamed on the Vols’ depleted offensive line. More on that in a moment.

3.) Southern Miss won on paper

A win is a win. Let’s establish that up front. As more than a few coaches — including Butch Jones — have proclaimed, you never apologize for an ugly win. Tennessee beat Southern Miss. More than that, the Vols won decidedly. The game didn’t have anyone on the edge of their seat on the final possession, as did two of the Vols’ previous three wins (Georgia Tech and Massachusetts).

But to illustrate just how close this game was, minus those two second half turnovers by the Golden Eagles, it’s necessary to look at the stat sheet. Southern Miss won most statistical categories. First downs: 18 to 14. Rushing yards: 118 to 95. Passing yards: 161 to 115. Total offense: 279 to 210. Time of possession: 31:07 to 28:53. Third down conversions: 7 of 20 to 2 of 13.

One of the few stats the Golden Eagles didn’t win, however, was turnovers. They had two of them, Tennessee had none, and it’s hard to win a football game if you don’t win the turnover battle.

4.) Tennessee’s defense played excellent football

Props to Tennessee’s defense for creating those two Southern Miss turnovers that proved to be the difference-maker. If the Vols’ offense stunk up the field, their defense was a bit of a redeeming strength. Tennessee limited Southern Miss to 279 yards, including an average of just 2.8 yards per rush, and 7 of 20 on third down tries. Southern Miss didn’t have a touchdown until turning to Kwandra Griggs in the fourth quarter.

The unforgiving UT fan base is ready for a complete coaching staff overhaul, but Bob Shoop continues to show that his defense isn’t quite as bad as what it seemed at the end of last season. It may not be on par with the defenses that Shoop had under James Franklin at Vanderbilt and Penn State, but it isn’t bad — and is getting better.

In fact, don’t look now, but Tennessee’s defense is 58th nationally — a big jump from earlier in the season. Take out the 655 yards by Georgia Tech, and Tennessee’s defense would jump all the way to 34th nationally, and sixth in the SEC. That isn’t shabby — particularly considering the injuries that Shoop’s unit has had to endure and overcome.

Bob Shoop is making a very strong case to remain on Tennessee’s staff next season.

5.) Trevor Daniel is killing it

You never want your punter to have to punt eight times in a single game. But if he does, you want that punter to be Trevor Daniel. The senior averaged 49.2 yards on his eight punts against Southern Miss, with six punts in excess of 50 yards and three punts inside the 20-yard-line. That’s not bad for a day’s work, and it’s what is going to make Daniel a relatively wealthy man when he starts working on Sundays next season.

Tennessee ranks 13th in the nation in net punting this season, averaging 41.7 net yards per punt. As for straight-up punting averages, Daniel ranks fourth in the nation (behind Florida’s Johnny Townsend, Texas’s Michael Dickson and New Mexico’s Corey Bojorquez) at 47.3 yards per punt.

It’s nice to be good at something.

6.) An unwise move that validated itself

At face value, it appears that Tennessee had little choice but to burn Will McBride’s redshirt. I say “at face value” because Butch Jones said after the game that Jarrett Guarantano could have returned at the game’s end, if necessary. But, if we assume that Guarantano truly couldn’t go for much of the game — and that seems like a safe assumption, considering Tennessee tried to reassert him and later pulled him again, what other choice did Jones have?

Initially, though, it seemed like a really misguided move. Because just three plays after he exited, Guarantano returned to the lineup. At that point, Tennessee had burned a redshirt nine games into the season so that its true freshman quarterback could be on the field for three plays.

When Jones was asked earlier in the week if he would burn McBride’s redshirt if Guarantano’s helmet came off and forced a one-play change, and answered affirmatively, most assumed he really wouldn’t, if push came to shove. But when push came to shove Saturday night, Jones did exactly what he said he would do. And everyone groaned. What would have been wrong with using a time out to evaluate Guarantano’s injury before making the rash decision to insert McBride? Hindsight is 20-20, but at that point, the two-minute media time out would have given the staff time to determine that Guarantano could re-enter the game.

7.) Blame the OL for Guarantano

It’s not a good year for Tennessee’s quarterbacks. Quinten Dormady is out for the season with a shoulder injury, and now Guarantano is nursing an injury. The blame goes directly on the offensive line. Tennessee ranks 108th nationally for sacks allowed, giving up 25. That’s 2.78 per game, but it has gotten worse as the season has progressed.

Guarantano’s initial injury came on a touchdown run early in the game against Southern Miss. And he aggravated it on a late hit — it should have been a roughing-the-passer penalty but wasn’t — in the second quarter. But the bottom line is hits take their toll on quarterbacks, and they have an accumulating effect. It’s no small wonder that Tennessee’s original starting quarterback is out for the season and its backup is now injured as well. The Vols’ quarterbacks have been getting hit far too many times by an offensive line that is simply awful.

A big part of Tennessee’s problem on the offensive line is injuries. The line has been hit particularly hard by the injury bug. But let’s not pretend that injuries are solely responsible for the Vols’ blocking woes. The line did not perform very well at the beginning of the season, when it was at full strength. And before we blame position coaching, let’s not forget that Tennessee had a different coach last season, and the result was much the same.

8.) What’s up with all the injuries, anyway?

At what point do we stop chalking all these injuries up to bad luck? The list continued to grow Saturday, with Guarantano, Marquez Callaway and Evan Berry (again!) leaving the game with injuries.

Tennessee’s injury crisis became a major story last year, when the Vols started the season 5-0 before being decimated by injuries. But the injury bug didn’t bite UT for the first time last year. Injuries were a big problem for Tennessee earlier in Jones’ tenure. It’s just that there were far more of them in 2016. And there have been even more in 2017 than in 2016. In other words, the problem is accelerating.

Last year, many of us pointed the finger at strength and conditioning. That’s still the easiest culprit to blame, but the Vols’ have a new S&C coach, and he has an excellent track record. Rock Gullickson is a former NFL Strength Coach of the Year.

Whatever is causing all of Tennessee’s injuries, it can no longer be shrugged off as misfortune.

9.) Twelve straight

With its win over Southern Miss, Tennessee has now won 12 consecutive games against non-conference opponents. And the 24-10 win over the Golden Eagles marked just the third time in nine games this season that the Vols have covered the spread. Saturday’s game also marked the first time Tennessee has covered the spread in a win. The prior two games that saw UT cover were against Florida and Kentucky, both of them losses.

10.) A beautiful crowd

Was #EmptyNeyland successful? Not really. Was #FillNeyland successful? Not really.

Tennessee’s announced crowd of 95,551 was clearly not quite that. Neyland Stadium holds 102,455, which means the official attendance would’ve left only around 7,000 empty seats. There were more empty seats than that in the student section alone. WNML’s Jimmy Hyams was probably more accurate with his estimate of around 75,000, which was about what you would expect for a game against a Conference USA foe amid a disappointing season.

So, no, the folks who wanted to empty the stadium in protest weren’t successful, but neither were the folks who wanted to fill it to capacity in a show of support. Social media movements might elect a president, but they apparently don’t influence attendance at sporting events all that much.

Here’s what remains, though: that crowd was a nice one, all things considered. There are three SEC teams that are struggling and likely to fire their head this season. All of them had home games Saturday. Google the images and compare Tennessee’s crowd to Texas A&M’s and Arkansas’s. There is no home field advantage quite like a packed-out Kyle Field, and you have to be a solid fan to wear a pig hat and yell soo-ey, but it’s hard to argue at this point that Tennessee fans aren’t among the best in the SEC when it comes to putting butts in seats.

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