KNOXVILLE, Tenn.. — Tennessee has reached the midway point of the season 5-2, a record most would have taken before the season if you told them Florida and Georgia would be two of the triumphs.
The No. 18-ranked Vols’ first team goal is to win the SEC East Division, and while they aren’t in control of their own destiny, the odds would seem good.
The Gators hold a one-game lead in the East, but Tennessee owns the tiebreaker by virtue of its 38-28 win over Florida.
To make their first SEC Championship Game appearance of the post Phillip Fulmer era, the Vols need to win out and have Georgia, Arkansas, LSU or South Carolina beat the Gators.
It’s been an exciting season for Tennessee fans, with the Vols coming from double digits down to win four of their first five games.
A 45-38 double-overtime road loss at Texas A&M was tough, but the fact that Tennessee came from 28-7 down in the second half made it almost bearable.
The 49-10 defeat to Alabama, however, seemed to expose the Vols’ every weakness.
Further, Tennessee had a couple of more players knocked out of lineup, quite literally a case of adding insult to injury.
Here are the midseason grades by position:
Josh Dobbs playmaking ability has been the difference in more than one victory this season, as it has enabled an otherwise sputtering and inconsistent offense success in every contest but one. Dobbs is completing 58.5 percent of his passes despite more than a dozen dropped passes, with 14 TDs and nine interceptions.
RUNNING BACKS (C)
Average by SEC standards, with ball security issues and a lack of explosive plays outside of Alvin Kamara’s standout performance at Texas A&M. The shotgun formation has hampered Jalen Hurd, who averages just 3.8 yards per carry. Kamara is at 4.9 yards per carry, and his longest run is a modest 36 yards. John Kelly has actually appeared most effective on the handoffs, with 6.1 yards per attempt and a North-South style that fits.
RECEIVERS & TIGHT ENDS (B)
The receivers have had their share of highs and lows, while the tight ends have struggled to catch passes when afforded opportunities. Josh Malone caught TD passes in each of the first four games, and then Jauan Jennings stepped up with a pivotal go-ahead 67-yard TD catch against Florida, and then his immaculate catch on the Hail Mary Between the Hedges at Georgia. Freshman Tyler Byrd has emerged as an explosive option, while junior Josh Smith has had a quiet year.
OFFENSIVE LINE (D)
It’s a unit that has been playing catch-up all season, sluggish and not completely healthy throughout fall camp and now into the season. Tennessee has started five different offensive line combinations, and by the time the Alabama game finished, only one starter was left on the field. The line has been outplayed in most every game and, inexplicably, been more of a work in progress than one might have expected with four starters returning.
DEFENSIVE LINE (B)
Defensive end Derek Barnett has provided a stinger for the so-called “Orange Swarm,” leading the team with 11.5 tackles for loss along with six sacks. Corey Vereen has also had a strong campaign with three pass deflections, three quarterback hurries and two fumble recoveries, including his TD at Georgia. The defensive tackles have battled, but injuries have taken their toll. UT hopes Kendal Vickers can get back from injury soon, and Shy Tuttle will be counted on to continue his inspired play. Jonathan Kongbo has not made the impact many hoped for as an end.
The grade would be higher if it were on a curve, as this has been the most injury-ravaged unit on the team. Colton Jumper has stepped up and is second on the team with 42 tackles. The Vols are down to their fourth-team weakside linebacker in Elliott Berry, but he had a strong nine-tackle effort against Alabama. The return of Darrin Kirkland Jr. will provide a lift. Jalen Reeves-Maybin is out for the season, having had minimal impact in the four games he played.
Coordinator Bob Shoop has had to do a great deal of shuffling here, with safeties/nickle Todd Kelly Jr., Micah Abernathy and Rashaan Gaulden the only constants. Those three have played well, and Malik Foreman was playing solid after moving out to corner following Cam Sutton’s ankle injury. Emmanuel Moseley has been good, not great, while freshman Baylen Buchanan has earned more trust, and consequently more reps, than athletic junior Justin Martin.
SPECIAL TEAMS (B)
Coach Butch Jones will tell you that nothing less than an “A” will do in this department, as the Vols put a lot of time and top personnel into making their special teams special. Trevor Daniel has been strong, averaging 43.8 per punt with 18 punts dropped inside opponents’ 20-yard line. Kicker Aaron Medley has been steady under pressure, 6-of-8 on his field-goal attempts. Evan Berry has averaged a decent 27.8 per kick return, and Alvin Kamara is at his best on punt returns, with a 10.2 average. The Vols are only 44th in the nation in kick return defense, however, and an eye-popping 119th in the country in punt return defense, allowing 15.5 per return.
Jones and his staff have had to work around an uncharacteristically high number of injuries, but their halftime adjustments have been mostly superb. The downgrades would be for an offensive system that does not seem to utilize all of the personnel in the best way, though injuries and inconsistency on the offensive line would complicate any scheme.