Game Preview: UT vs. Mississippi State
Tennessee football practice on Oct. 9, 2012
Photo by Amy Smotherman Burgess, ©KNS // Buy this photo
Tennessee is a handful of defensive gaffes from being undefeated and celebrated as the numero uno surprise in college football.
Well, at least that's one way of looking at it.
A skewed perspective? Probably. I've been a handful of numbers short on any Powerball ticket I ever bought. I don't have a dime to show for it.
But play along.
If the Vols don't get gashed for multiple long touchdowns by both Florida and Georgia, imagine the possibilities.
Would the Gators, back on Sept. 20 at Neyland Stadium, have overturned Tennessee's 20-13 lead in the third quarter without breaking out a track meet of long-distance sprints to the end zone?
Would Georgia have prevailed in a 51-44 shootout two weeks ago if the freshmen backs hadn't channeled Herschel Walker and peeled off touchdown runs of 75, 72 and 51 yards?
"You can't get 'em back,'' UT coach Derek Dooley said Monday. "That's how it is.''
No, the Vols can't get 'em back. They have to live with the fact that several mammoth defensive breakdowns have cost them any chance to notch two season-changing wins over SEC East rivals.
"It's bad, obviously,'' safety Byron Moore said. "We've tried to move on from that now.
"We know what we did wrong. It's correctable stuff. We're looking forward to not letting it happen any more.''
That was the focus last week during the open date — closing the express lanes to the end zone before an imposing October grind begins Saturday (TV: ESPN2, 9 p.m.) at Mississippi State.
"There are some trends you see,'' said Dooley. "There are some trends schematically and there are some trends personnel-wise.
"Most of those plays start with a little bit of an alignment error. Then it's not playing the blocks very well from just a toughness standpoint. And then the ball breaks and not being able to get the guy down in space.''
To some degree, the errors are fallout from the switch to a 3-4 defensive front this season. Compounding the issue is a lack of pursuit speed.
Thus, worst-case scenario: a potential 15- or 20-yard gain instead strikes up the band and the extra-point unit is on the field.
Any defense is going to give up a few chunk plays. Even Alabama's. The difference is damage control.
In the N.C. State game, the Wolfpack hit a 49-yard pass. But the Vols eventually made the tackle. The drive ended in a missed field goal.
A 31-yard pass hurt but it wasn't a touchdown. A UT interception ended that drive. A 14-yard run that didn't turn into a 79-yard touchdown was erased by another Tennessee interception.
If the Vols had tackled Trey Burton after a 35-yard gain, maybe Florida would have eventually scored. Maybe not.
If somebody managed to get Georgia's Keith Marshall on the ground 30 yards into either one of his 70-plus yard touchdown runs, maybe the Bulldogs finish the drive. Maybe they turn it over.
If the Vols have found solutions during the open date, a way to limit the damage when bad plays happen, they will at least give themselves a chance, Saturday and beyond.
"We certainly don't have a defense that is three-and-out, stone you all the time,'' Dooley said, "and we didn't expect that right away.
"But it's not like they're just grinding on (UT) for four straight quarters. A lot of times when we play it right and do it right we perform well.''
It's those other times, a handful of them, that have made the season what it is, rather than what it might have been.