Tennessee's defense hasn't been a victim of star power during its four-game losing streak.
If Georgia's Isaiah Crowell, LSU's Spencer Ware, Alabama's Trent Richardson and South Carolina's Alshon Jeffery put up the numbers they did against UT (3-5, 0-5 SEC) on a weekly basis, they wouldn't be among the SEC's best at their respective positions.
The Vols, though, have fallen prey to the "other guys," the players whom they've forced to make beat them while devoting heavy resources to the aforementioned headliners.
Saturday's 14-3 loss to No. 14 South Carolina (7-1, 5-1) merely was the latest example.
Thanks to strong coverage from Prentiss Waggner and a slew of other Vols, Jeffery, a massive target at wide receiver and a first-team All-American last season, was limited to three catches for 17 yards. But freshman tailback Brandon Wilds, making his first start in the absence of All-SEC first-team sophomore Marcus Lattimore, rose to the challenge, especially in the second half, as he finished with 137 yards on 28 carries.
Wilds and quarterback Connor Shaw, who added 64 yards on the ground, simply exposed a Vols defense that has yet to prove it can stop an opponent's passing game and running game at the same time.
"It is hard for us to do both well," coach Derek Dooley said. "We stop the run then we give up big plays throwing the ball. We hold (Jeffery) to 17 yards but they (get 4 or 5 yards per play)."
It can be argued that the Vols defense hasn't executed a pre-game plan better this season than the one it did Saturday with Jeffery. UT largely did the same in its matchup with the 230-pound receiver last year, but was torched in the fourth quarter on a 70-yard touchdown catch.
The big play never happened Saturday. Really, it never even came close to happening, as the Vols devoted plenty of resources to a secondary that had just surrendered 284 passing yards to AJ McCarron, the clear second fiddle to Richardson in Alabama's offense.
"We were comfortable coming into the game that we had a great scheme, coaches had a great game plan for them and I think we executed pretty well," said Waggner, who intercepted a pass thrown Jeffery's way in the third quarter and nearly ran it back for a touchdown. "We just have to do a couple more of the little things better to get off the field a lot more and give the offense chances."
Wilds was the main reason why UT couldn't get off the field in the third quarter. He carried the ball 11 times for 51 yards on the Gamecocks' 20-play, 98-yard drive. He never gained more than 9 yards on any of his carries, but was responsible for three of the Gamecocks' six third-down conversions on the possession.
Wilds' performance was the best by an opposing running back since Cincinnati's Isaiah Pead in the second week of the season, as he gained 57 yards more than Ware could muster earlier in the month, 60 more than Richardson — a Heisman Trophy candidate — and 79 more than Crowell — one of the nation's highest touted freshmen.
The difference? Stopping the run wasn't the Vols' top focus.
"It is hard to create negative plays when you play a lot more pass coverage than we normally do in games, so when they hand it off, we are not disruptive enough to get them to second-and-10, second and 11," Dooley said. "They get ahead of the chains. It's kind of bleeding a little bit."
Walking Wounded: On his Sunday TV show, Dooley said a number of Vols are feeling the grind of a 12-game season because only four regular starters — running back Tauren Poole, offensive tackle Ja'Wuan James, defensive tackle Malik Jackson and Wagger — have played a prominent role for an entire year.
"We got about 18 starters now that going 12 games in a row, playing a lot of snaps and depending on you is a new thing for them," Dooley said. "We got to heal them, keep coming and then they'll play their way out of it."
Linebacker Curt Maggitt (calf), who didn't play Saturday, and running back Marlin Lane (knee), who was on the field for one play, certainly fall in that category.
Dooley did not provide an update on strong safety Brent Brewer, who went out with a knee injury during the third quarter and did not return.
A New Low: After picking up just 35 yards on 21 carries Saturday, the Vols dropped to 119th out of 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in rushing offense.
The Vols are averaging 82.63 yards per game, a figure that is only larger than Miami (Ohio)'s 67.5. In its five SEC games, UT has averaged 41.6 rushing yards.