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Losing is tough enough for Tennessee fans. But the way the Vols are losing makes it even tougher.
Fans can't understand how a Tennessee defense could be this bad.
Sure, there were preseason concerns — most of which were related to change. The Vols had an all-new defensive coaching staff. They had a new defensive scheme.
They even had a new defensive philosophy of sorts, as mandated by third-year UT coach Derek Dooley.
He wanted a more aggressive defense. He wanted more big plays and more forced turnovers.
You can't fault him for that. What's the appeal in standing pat when you have suffered through back-to-back seven-loss seasons? Besides, it's not as though anyone was confusing UT's defense with Alabama's.
Now, no one is confusing this defense with last year's.
Tennessee's 2011 defense gave up 271 points. This defense already has given up just as many in four fewer games. It also has given up 211 points in five SEC games — or 10 more than the 5-7 team of 2008 team gave up in its entire dreadful season.
And the video has been as damning as the scoreboard during UT's 3-5 season.
Opposing teams repeatedly have accumulated a season's worth of highlights in just one game against UT's defense. Almost every opposing quarterback has looked like an All-American candidate when he has thrown in Tennessee's direction.
I realize the offense is currently ahead of the defense in college football. But that's not an acceptable excuse for what's going on with UT's defense, which often seems overmatched against any offense manned by reasonably healthy student-athletes.
You saw that again Saturday when UT fell to 0-5 in the SEC with a 38-35 loss to South Carolina. You also saw what one great defensive player could do.
South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney forced a game-deciding fumble when he knocked the ball loose from UT quarterback Tyler Bray with 1:08 to play.
Tennessee doesn't have that caliber of player on its defense. Few teams do. But UT's defensive flaws can't be attributed solely to a void of superstars, or even a shortage of average SEC players.
Coaching is obviously a factor.
Hiring defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri from Alabama almost seemed like a coup for Dooley when he had to replace Justin Wilcox, who left after last season for a similar position at the University of Washington.
Although Sunseri hadn't been a defensive coordinator since 1999 at Alabama A&M, he coached the Carolina Panthers' defensive line for seven seasons. He also coached linebackers
on Alabama's national championship teams in 2009 and 2011.
Sunseri brought more than national championship experience with him from Alabama. His energy and enthusiasm were evident from his first practice session.
"An exceptional fit for Tennessee," Dooley called him.
In fact, Sunseri has been a horrible fit.
Last season, Wilcox probably got less credit than he deserved for masking UT's defensive shortcomings. It's as though the current system was designed to highlight the defense's inadequacies. How else can you characterize what's going on with a defense that has given up 42 points per game in SEC play?
Maybe the personnel isn't well suited for Sunseri's system. Or maybe the team and scheme just need more time to mesh. Sound familiar?
After the 2007 season, then UT coach Phillip Fulmer had to replace veteran offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe. He decided on Dave Clawson, who came to UT from Richmond with sterling offensive credentials — none of which were apparent during the 2008 season.
But as Clawson's one and only UT offense stumbled from one game to the next, he pointed out that players usually didn't hit their stride in his system until the second season.
Fulmer couldn't vouch for that. He was fired with three games remaining in the 2008 season.