When Alabama and Georgia line up on defense in the SEC championship game Saturday, they will remind you of Tennessee — until the ball is snapped.
Like Tennessee, the Tide and Bulldogs run a 3-4 defense. Unlike Tennessee, they're highly competent at it. So once they start knocking people around and cutting off ballcarriers near the line of scrimmage, the similar alignments will never come to mind.
But UT's defense didn't just suffer in comparison to the elite teams in the conference. It didn't even resemble an average SEC defense this season.
If UT's next football coach doesn't recognize that immediately, he's the wrong guy for the job.
Building a bigger, stronger defense was a priority for former UT coach Derek Dooley. The scales will tell you he succeeded.
Dooley's first front seven averaged 249 pounds. Two years later, UT's front seven averaged 271. Even if you don't include 360-pound defensive tackle Daniel McCullers, the front seven still would average 14 pounds more than it did in 2010.
But UT's lack of speed on defense was far more noticeable than its size this past season. You saw it game after game, right through last Saturday when Kentucky backup running back Jonathan George raced 45 yards through a spacious secondary. His touchdown brought back memories of Quentin Hines' 70-yard touchdown run on behalf of Akron in the fourth game.
Akron, Kentucky: It didn't matter. Once UT's new coach starts reviewing game videotape, he will think he's watching highlight videos — of everybody else.
Florida's Trey Burton had an 80-yard touchdown run. Missouri's Kendial Lawrence had a 77-yarder. Georgia's Keith Marshall had a 75-yarder. Georgia's Todd Gurley, 51; Vanderbilt's Jordan Matthews, 47; Alabama's T.J. Yeldon, 43.
Florida also scored on a 75-yard pass. Vanderbilt hit a 71-yarder. Troy, a 67- and 51-yarder. South Carolina had four touchdowns covering 24 yards or more. Alabama had four of 23 or more.
It was as though the season was one long chase scene. Think back: How many times do you remember a Vol overtaking or even gaining ground on someone running for their goal line? My dog had a better chance of catching a car on the interstate.
You could attribute the apparent lack of speed, in part, to the new defensive alignment, which UT seemingly never quite grasped. It's hard to be fast when you aren't sure where you're going.
But when I watched Vanderbilt ballcarriers turning the corner against UT's defense, I began to wonder if UT's secondary could win a relay race against any other team in the conference.
Speed on defense is often what separates the SEC apart from the rest of college football. It also
was obvious at UT for all those years John Chavis was coordinating its defense.
Now, you might as well be watching Minnesota. The new coach might wonder if he made a wrong turn and ended up in the Big Ten.
Once he gets past the initial shock of reviewing UT's 2012 season, he should have all the motivation he needs to recruit faster players on defense.
If he succeeds, maybe Tennessee can start catching up to the rest of the conference.