Players talk about Mississippi State loss
Tennessee players on facing #1 Alabama
Tennessee has a 40-point-size problem on defense, which sometimes can blind you to almost everything else about this team.
In their three losses, the Vols have given up an average of 43 points per game. But while the defense is providing compelling evidence that it could be the worst in school history, UT's offensive line has established itself as perhaps the program's best in eight years.
It's also a good place to look if you want to cite what progress UT has made in two and a half seasons under coach Derek Dooley.
In 2004, the Vols led the SEC in yards rushing per game (186) and averaged 4.7 yards per carry. They haven't come close to that until now — thanks mainly to the five guys leading the way: tackles Antonio Richardson and Ja'Wuan James, guards Dallas Thomas and Zach Fulton, and center James Stone.
The contrast between this season and last is stunning for a unit that has just one senior and a new starter.
The Vols are averaging 183.3 yards per game rushing, more than twice what they averaged per game last season. They're also averaging 4.8 yards per carry, 2 yards per-carry more than last season.
"This is a group that was totally maligned last year," Dooley said at Monday's media conference. "We never lost confidence in what their future held."
Their future has become more promising by the game. In a 51-44 loss to Georgia two weeks ago, the offensive line graded out higher than in any other game of the Dooley era. They were even better in Saturday's 41-31 loss to Mississippi State, prompting Dooley to say, "We ran the ball probably better than we've ever run it against an SEC team."
You can credit UT's passing somewhat for the revived running game since that's usually the first priority of opposing defenses. But the offensive line also deserves some of the credit for the passing success in that the Vols lead the league with only three sacks allowed.
It's the combination of pass protection and run blocking that has distinguished this UT offensive line from those of recent years. The offensive line further enhanced its status against Mississippi State.
Leading rusher Rajion Neal didn't play after the first series of the third quarter because of injury. Marlin Lane, UT's No. 2 running back, was hobbled as well.
The injuries didn't slow UT's running game, though. The Vols rushed for 213 yards and averaged 6.3 yards per carry.
And they accomplished much of that while relying on 5-foot-8, 172-pound running back Devrin Young, who carried 13 times for a career-high 58 yards.
"As an offensive line, we didn't even know (two running backs were hurt)," James said. "Devrin came in; we didn't miss a beat. He was running hard."
UT's offensive line will
get another chance to prove itself the next two Saturdays against Alabama and South Carolina. The Tide is No. 1 nationally in total defense and is allowing only 55.3 yards rushing per game. The Gamecocks are giving up just 2.9 yards rushing per carry and rank fourth nationally in sacks.
But those defenses will face challenges of their own against UT's offensive line.