By Jimmy Hyams
Despite a 38-12 loss at No. 2 ranked Georgia, Tennessee showed significant improvement in several areas.
The Vols didn’t turn it over six times, like they did against Florida the week before.
They got pressure on the quarterback, racking up three sacks.
They rallied from a 24-0 deficit early in the third quarter to make it a 12-point game – and the margin was 12 with less than four minutes remaining.
They scored two touchdowns against a team that routed them 41-0 last year.
But did Tennessee play well enough to snap what has grown to an 11-game losing streak in SEC play?
In other words, was Saturday’s performance good enough to beat South Carolina, Kentucky, Missouri or Vanderbilt.
That, of course, is assuming top 10 Auburn and top-ranked Alabama – UT’s next two opponents – beat the Vols. Odds suggest UT doesn’t have much of a chance in those two games.
But Tennessee should be no more than a 10-point underdog against the rest of its upcoming SEC opponents.
“I thought the guys actually played extremely hard … fought hard,’’ UT first-year coach Jeremy Pruitt said after his return to Georgia, where he served as defensive coordinator from 2014-15.
They fought better than they did against Florida.
But there are still obvious shortcomings.
Tennessee’s offense managed only three first downs and 68 total yards while trailing 17-0 at halftime.
The Vols could muster only 66 rushing yards on 25 attempts – 2.6 per carry.
“We’ve got to be able to run the ball,’’ Pruitt said. “It’s not real hard. Just put a hat on a hat, go in the right direction and strain.’’
They were 2 of 10 on third-down, facing third-and-at-least-7 six times.
And when the margin was cut to 24-12 with 11 minutes left in the game, the defense couldn’t get a stop as Georgia marched 75 yards on 13 plays and consumed 7:39 to take a 31-12 lead with 3:31 left.
Another fumble by freshman running back Jeremy Banks – his third this season — set up Georgia’s final score.
Interestingly, while UT lost its only fumble, Georgia had four fumbles and didn’t lose any, actually turning one into an improbable touchdown. Quarterback Jake Fromm was stripped on a sack by UT outside linebacker Darrell Taylor. Tight end Isaac Nauta scooped it up at the UT 40 and rambled into the end zone for the first score of the game.
“That’s the first time in my life I seen a fumble and a guy run it in for a touchdown,’’ Pruitt said. “We’ve got to have more guys around the ball.’’
UT had a chance to stop Georgia’s fourth-quarter game-sealing drive when backup quarterback Justin Fields fumbled on a zone-read option with his running back. But the ball bounced right back to Fields at the UT 32 and Georgia scored four plays later.
For Tennessee to win an SEC game this year, it must do several things:
- It must run better. Averaging 2.6 yards per carry won’t cut it.
- The Vols must be more efficient on first down. UT gained 70 yards on 19 first-down snaps (seven were pass calls). UT gained 72 on 33 first downs against Florida.
- It must start quicker. UT has been outscored 31-0 in the first quarter by three Power 5 opponents and doesn’t have an offensive touchdown in the first 15 minutes of any game.
- Tackle better. Several of Georgia’s scoring plays occurred when UT missed tackles.
Yes, Tennessee showed improvement from the Florida to the Georgia game. But there is plenty more to work on before UT can beat anyone in the SEC. And an open date provides that.
As outside linebacker Darrell Taylor said: “We’ve got to get back in the lab and fix some things.’’