AP Top 25 College Football
When Tennessee begins its video work for Saturday's game with South Carolina, it should start with the season opener.
The Vols looked like a top-25 team when they beat North Carolina State 35-21 in the Georgia Dome. Can you still remember that after four consecutive SEC losses?
The victory seems even better now. N.C. State has lost only one other game, upped its record to 5-2 and won back-to-back games against then third-ranked Florida State and Maryland, which also has a winning record.
But UT no longer looks like the team that beat N.C. State by two touchdowns. It looks more like the 5-7 team of 2011 and the 6-7 team of 2010.
You know what I mean if you watched the Vols roll over against the Tide in the second half of a 44-13 loss.
There's no shame in losing to No. 1 Alabama. It was the manner in which they lost, lowering their level of performance with almost each passing play (no pun intended).
The Tennessee team that beat N.C. State is capable of winning four of its last five games, maybe even upsetting the Gamecocks, and playing in a bowl. The UT team that was outscored 21-3 in the second half by Alabama is capable of losing another seven games and getting its entire coaching staff fired in the process.
If this team loses six or seven games, the coaching staff deserves to be fired. The defensive staff should be the first to go.
Every time an opponent sends a football airborne, you expect the sky to fall on the Tennessee defense. For all of UT's failures in recent years, I can't recall so many receivers being so open as they were against Alabama. And no, I haven't forgotten last year's Arkansas game. At least, the Vols were closer to the Hogs when they made all those catches.
UT's defense made Alabama freshman wide receiver Amari Cooper look like Arkansas' Joe Adams, Florida's Percy Harvin or any other All-SEC receiver that you can remember cruising touchdown-bound through the Tennessee secondary in recent years.
It's not just about the defense, though. It's not just about the coaching, either.
UT's most heralded players entering this season were quarterback Tyler Bray and wide receiver Justin Hunter, both of whom have to play well if the Vols are to beat a team as good as South Carolina, even if the Gamecocks are fighting through injuries.
Bray and Hunter didn't play nearly well enough against the Tide.
Bray completed fewer than 50 percent of his passes and threw two costly interceptions. And don't be misled by Hunter's statistics — four catches for 70 yards. Three of the catches and 64 of the yards came after Alabama took a 30-10 lead late in the third quarter. His second-quarter drop of what should have been a long completion to the Tide 10-yard line provided the poster play for UT's offense.
Not only did the Vols lose to Alabama, they showed enough frailties to prove they could lose to almost anyone on their schedule, including Troy, which is better than the Akron team that played them to a virtual standstill for three quarters.
But the season doesn't have to continue down a disastrous path.
The Vols still have time on their side. They also have enough talent to win four of their last five games, keep their coaches employed and — with the help of a bowl game — win eight games for the first time since 2007. But they just can't talk their way into a successful finish.
They have to execute — just as they did in the season opener, just as they did for almost three quarters against unbeaten Florida, and just as they did in a comeback against Georgia. Otherwise, the season will only get worse.
And if the Vols need a reminder as to how bad it could get, the N.C. State video won't help them. They need to take another look at last season's Kentucky game.