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Tennessee vs. Missouri: 10 things

Photo: UTSports.com

Tennessee traveled to Columbia, Mo., on Saturday, Nov. 11, and was destroyed by Missouri, 50-17. Here are 10 things that stood out:

1.) Egg on my face

So I actually made this tweet a few hours before the start of Saturday’s game:

We knew Tennessee’s defense had not faced an offense quite like Missouri’s at least since Alabama. Still, UT’s defense had improved quite a bit over the course of the season. Or so it seemed. Mizzou shattered that perception, having its way with Bob Shoop’s unit. The Vols didn’t play terribly in the early going, and Nigel Warrior’s 70-yard pick-six was a bright spot. But as the game progressed, the defense regressed. And that seems to be a recurring theme this season.

2.) Questionable penalty decisions

In the second quarter of Saturday’s game, Missouri was flagged for holding on a 2nd & 11 incomplete pass at Tennessee’s 21-yard-line. Butch Jones chose to decline the penalty, giving the Tigers a 3rd & 11 at the 21-yard-line.

The thinking behind Jones’ decision was obvious: give Missouri just one more chance, not two, to pick up the first down. But most coaches would have declined the penalty, and that seems especially prudent given the field position. After the Tigers threw another incomplete pass on fourth down, they knocked home a 38-yard field goal to push their lead to 17-10. But kicking is not Missouri’s strength. The penalty would have backed up to the 31, and a 48-yard field goal would’ve been much more difficult.

Jones’ decisions to decline penalties have been questioned in the past, and this one was certainly worth questioning, as well.

3.) John Kelly is making boneheaded decisions

Junior John Kelly is the heart and soul of Tennessee’s offense this season. His poor decision that resulted in a citation for marijuana possession and a subsequent suspension for the Vols’ loss to Kentucky on Oct. 28 was frustrating, but mistakes do happen. However, another boneheaded decision by John Kelly on Saturday makes one question just how much of a leader Kelly is for the Vols right now.

With Tennessee facing 2nd-and-goal at the Missouri four-yard-line, Kelly was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct after he mouthed at an official. The 15-yard penalty backed the ball up to the 19, trailing 17-10 with just minutes left in the first half. It worked out for the Vols, with Will McBride connecting with Ethan Wolf on a beautiful third-and-goal touchdown pass from the 19, which tied the game. But the result didn’t lessen the severity of Kelly’s very bad decision.

No one is immune to mistakes, but when your team leader is making repeated mistakes that put his team in a poor position, that doesn’t speak highly for your football team — which is one reason why the Vols are now on the verge of missing bowl eligibility.

4.) Missouri’s rushing attack

Missouri rushed for 433 yards against Tennessee, and had 659 yards of total offense. It was the most total yards given up by the Vols this season, though the rushing total finished 102 yards below the school-record 535 UT gave up to Georgia Tech in the season opener.

But the rushing total wasn’t the most disheartening part of the Vols’ defensive effort. Missouri’s rushing yards came on 53 attempts, meaning the Tigers averaged a whopping 8.2 yards per carry. Eight yards per touch. Ouch.

5.) Will McBride is gutsy

Give true freshman Will McBride credit for one thing: he’s a gritty player. McBride kept the ball on the read option several times, and stood in the pocket to take bone-jarring hits on several occasions. While he did not pick up a first down on a third-and-long scramble late in the second quarter, his decision to bulldoze his way into the teeth of Missouri’s defense rather than take the easy way out by skipping out of bounds was a good look. A few plays later, he completed a perfect touchdown pass to Ethan Wolf despite being drilled by a blitzing Missouri defender.

Yes, it was against Missouri, and Missouri might have the SEC’s worst defense. But McBride showed more poise and guts than either of the Vols’ much more highly rated quarterbacks who have taken snaps this season. Is he good enough to beat LSU? No. Not with the offensive line he’s been saddled with. But he’s fun to watch.

6.) Incompetent offensive line play

There may be several coaches on Tennessee’s staff who have difficulty landing jobs at big-time programs right away. Which one is least likely to be coaching at the Power 5 level next year? That’s hard to say, but Walt Wells has to be a candidate. The Vols’ offensive line wasn’t good last year — hasn’t been good since it was laden with NFL talent in 2013 — but it certainly isn’t better with Wells coaching it this year. It’s worst. Much worse, in fact, and not all of that can be blamed on injuries.

Behind that offensive line, Tennessee finished with only 285 yards of offense against a Missouri defense that has been hapless most of the season. Will McBride took far too many hits — the top two quarterbacks are already out with injuries — and that’s not good considering the “next man up” at QB is a walk-on.

7.) No mercy!

Maybe Barry Odom was attempting to pad his offense’s stats. Maybe he wanted to rub salt in the wound. Maybe he was just basking in the glory of what has become a rare SEC win for Missouri. But the Tigers were throwing passes on first down with less than four minutes remaining and a 50-17 lead. No, it wasn’t with his starters in the game, but it was still unusual. RUTS? Not really. Not on the Steve Spurrier level, at least. Mizzou had clearly dialed back the aggressiveness in the offensive playcalling by that point. But it was still interesting. (To the “mercy” point, Mizzou did take a knee inside the 10, but only after a fumbled snap backed the offense away from the goal line. Before that, the Tigers were clearly attempting to score.)

8.) A narrative shattered

Even as things started to turn south for the Tennessee program last season, with losses to South Carolina and Vanderbilt, and continued south this season, the narrative has been that at least Butch Jones turned the program around. Things are much better now than they were under Derek Dooley back in 2012, the narrative has been.

I wrote about it a couple of weeks ago, but that narrative has been shattered. Saturday’s 50-17 loss to Missouri was simply further proof of that. Even as Tennessee started 0-7 in SEC play in 2012, the Vols were highly competitive. They put up 44 points on a highly ranked Georgia team and only lost by a touchdown. They weren’t blown out by anybody until Vanderbilt.

This Tennessee team is not competitive. This Tennessee team has had a couple of games it let get away from it, but this team could also be 2-8 as it heads into the final two weeks of the season. Just like that 2012 team, the Vols are very likely to be 0-7 in SEC play by this time next week. And UT is in real danger of losing eight games for the first time in program history. It’s hard to envision a scenario in which Tennessee beats Vanderbilt with its current level of play, particularly on the offensive side of the ball.

9.) Currie has to act immediately

Tennessee fans are angry, and growing angrier with each passing week. I wrote earlier in the season that UT fans are going to have to resign themselves to patience, and understand that work is happening behind the scenes.

That hasn’t changed. The process is underway. Butch Jones is not coming back next season, regardless of what you might have read from some respected sources. That was made clear way back in mid October. AllThingsVol reported it at the time.

But that doesn’t mean that Tennessee can continue to let this dumpster fire continue without making a public statement. And that means announcing to the world that Jones is out as the Vols’ coach. Maybe you can him and assign an interim coach to close out the season, as UT did with Dooley. Maybe you terminate him and let him close out the season, as the Vols did with Phillip Fulmer and Johnny Majors. Either way, Jones has to be officially fired, and it has to happen now.

Frankly, the best course of action seems to be to go ahead and relieve Jones of his duties, allowing an interim coach to close things out. UT probably can’t put together back-to-back wins to get to bowl eligibility; less than a week to get ready for LSU isn’t going to cut it. And, yes, there is a chance you get embarrassed (much like Florida has been with Randy Shannon). But is it going to get any worse than it already is? That seems unlikely. (And, by the way, Florida put up more of a fight against Missouri than Tennessee did.) At the very least, maybe an interim, whether it’s Scott, Hoke, Strickling or Shoop, can light a fire under this team that will allow it to beat Vanderbilt and avoid that eighth loss.

With the recruiting class falling apart (three prized UT recruits — two of them current verbal commitments and one of them, Cade Mays, a former commitment) were at Ohio State for an official visit on Saturday. Together. That’s both disconcerting and disheartening. An interim coach isn’t going to save this class, but it at least sends the message that Jones will not return, and it allows the process of replacing Jones to officially begin.

Rightly or wrongly, the public perception is that UT athletics director John Currie has mangled this situation. It’s not a good look for him. Unless he gets this hire spectacularly right, he isn’t long for his job.

10.) Losing to them all

Tennessee now has an active losing streak to every team in the SEC, and the Vols have lost 10 out of their last 12 SEC games. Let’s repeat: 2017 Tennessee is not better than 2012 Tennessee. The incoming coach, whomever that might be, will inherit a roster that’s more capable of winning immediately, but will have a tough task of developing that roster in a very short amount of time.

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