KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee built itself up to a top 10 ranking for Saturday’s showdown against Alabama with climactic finishes and elevated performances from key players.
The No. 1-ranked Crimson Tide, however, neutralized the Vols’ best offensive players while dominating at the line of scrimmage en route to a 49-10 win.
The Vols fell to No. 18 in the AP Top 25, a respectable ranking that places Tennessee fifth among two-loss teams behind No. 10 Wisconsin, No. 13 Florida State, No. 16 Oklahoma and No. 17 Arkansas.
The Vols’ position could be argued, but the bottom line is that if Tennessee wins out after the bye week, the rankings will take care of themselves.
Here are five parting shots from the loss to Alabama:
Josh Dobbs stays healthy
Tennessee can consider it a victory that its most irreplaceable and important player, Dobbs, remains healthy heading into the second half of the season.
Dobbs carried the ball 89 times, second only to Jalen Hurd’s 114 carries through the first seven games, and the Vols quarterback was sacked 17 times.
Three of those sacks came in the first quarter of the Alabama game, likely affecting Mike DeBord’s play-calling, as he knew he had to protect his quarterback.
DeBord surely knew the Vols allowed 67 pressures on 216 pass-blocking snaps entering the Alabama game, second worst in the SEC.
Offensive line issues
Tennessee’s offensive line has been the most disappointing unit since the start of season, showing only incremental improvement heading into the Alabama game.
The Vols shuffled five different starting lineups through seven games, and there’s a chance UT could see a sixth after the bye week. Offensive tackles Chance Hall and Brett Kendrick were knocked out of Saturday’s game with injuries.
The unit looked unimpressive at the start of fall camp, in terms of body shapes and athleticism, appearing sluggish in the August drills and getting physically beat up by Appalachian State in the opener.
Coordinator Bob Shoop has been doing it with mirrors with his second-half adjustments, but there were no answers for Alabama’s powerful and explosive offense on Saturday.
Worse, the Orange Swarm lost both starting defensive tackles to injuries (Kendal Vickers, Kahlil McKenzie) against the Tide the same week that fifth-year senior starter Danny O’Brien was dismissed from the team.
The linebacking corps should get a lift from Darrin Kirkland Jr.’s pending return at South Carolina, but Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Quart’e Sapp and quite possibly Cortez McDowell are done for the season, making it a razor thin group.
The secondary remains without Cam Sutton, while corner Malik Foreman was a surprise scratch and safety Micah Abernathy appeared to pull his hamstring against Alabama.
Can Shoop patch together a winning scheme with roughly half his starters out with injuries?
Backfield in motion
Coach Butch Jones and DeBord need to take a hard look at how they are using their tailbacks. Alvin Kamara is clearly the more effective runner out of the shotgun when the back lines up beside the QB, quicker and more explosive than Hurd.
John Kelly also proved himself a worthy weapon with his explosiveness and ability to go north and south and “run through the smoke” at the line of scrimmage.
Hurd is at his best when running from a deeper spot out of the backfield and catching passes on routes. It’s not hard to see, and it doesn’t need to be a complicated adjustment.
It’s a matter of putting players in a position to succeed and not being stubborn with a system that has proven inconsistent this season with the current personnel grouping.
The locker room
This is what ultimately will determine Tennessee’s success this season. The Vols are down two captains with Sutton and Reeves-Maybin out, so players such as Derek Barnett and Kirkland need to take on a vocal presence on defense.
Dobbs could use some help leading the offense, too. The departure of Preston Williams at midseason is not a good look for team chemistry.
Dobbs was the only offensive player to show up for interviews and take accountability on that side of the football after the loss to Alabama, quite telling.