Tennessee’s promising 2016 season seems like it has ended. Yes, there are still four games to go, but the Vols expectations of an SEC East Championship and trip to Atlanta are all but over. Tennessee turned in its worst performance of the season, easily, Saturday night in Columbia against South Carolina. The Gamecocks are a young, inexperienced team with little depth. Head Coach Will Muschamp is on his second stop, and things don’t look much different in Columbia than they looked in Gainesville. That now includes an inexplicable win against Tennessee.
There will be many questions in Knoxville in the next two weeks. But for now, here’s how each unit on the field graded out in tonight’s loss.
Tennessee Game Grades: South Carolina Edition
No other way to say it. The offense made South Carolina’s 103rd ranked rush defense look good. Outside of two drives, the offense never found a rhythm. Tennessee had seven drives of four plays or less.
Offensive Stat of the Game: Turnovers: 3 (South Carolina Points off Turnovers: 14).
Joshua Dobbs is a great example of what a student-athlete should be and is a great young man. Tonight was not his night. Dobbs turned in his worst performance of his Volunteer career. His final stat line of 12-for-26 (46.15%), 161 yards, 1 touchdown and two interceptions, doesn’t quite do justice to his poor performance. There were the obvious flaws such as the multiple passes he one-hopped to receivers. But more concerning were the multiple mental mistakes. Taking a sack on fourth down. Missing read-option reads in the running game. Throwing to the wrong receivers. Everyone likes Dobbs, and rightfully so. He’s a great ambassador for the University of Tennessee. But you have to be honest in evaluating each player, and tonight was simply a very poor performance from Dobbs.
Running Backs: C
Alvin Kamara didn’t dress due to injury and Tennessee lost Jalen Hurd mid-way through the game due to injury. John Kelly stepped in and had a solid game. Kelly was able to gain 94 yards on 14 carries (6.7 yards/carry), but couldn’t make up for a non-existent passing game. Additionally, when Kelly needed a break after a 25-yard one, Carlin Fils-Aime caused Joshua Dobbs to fumble leading to another South Carolina score. It added to the comedy of errors that led to Tennessee’s demise.
By receivers, I mean Jauan Jennings. Without Jennings, Dobbs’ numbers would resemble a triple-option quarterback at an FCS school. Jennings demonstrated on three different occasions why Vols fans absolutely love his competitive spirit and fight. To be fair, when the ball was catchable, Josh Malone, Ethan Wolf, and Jason Croom made the catches. But there weren’t many catches to be had tonight.
Offensive Line: D
The struggles of the offensive line can best be summed up by a two-play sequence in the first half. First, Chance Hall, possibly Tennessee’s best lineman, lets a Gamecock defender run past him resulting in a sack. On the next play, facing a third-and-long, Brett Kendrick, Tennessee’s other tackle, gets bull-rushed into Joshua Dobbs as he’s passing, resulting in an interception. South Carolina would convert that interception into a touchdown and a 14-7 lead. As the game went on, there were moments of good play. But the line never exerted control over the line of scrimmage against a younger and smaller South Carolina front seven. Their performance was much worse than appears on the tape considering Carolina’s performance throughout the first half of the season.
While the Volunteer offense was clearly the weak link in this game, the defense didn’t play to their potential either. To let a freshman quarterback take the team on his back and win a game should rise to the level of embarrassment for a defense with this much talent.
Defensive Stat of the Game: Jake Bentley: 75% Completion Rate.
Defensive Line: B-
Derek Barnett continued his push toward’s Tennessee’s all-time sack record. Shy Tuttle was a dominant force in the middle before he left due to injury. South Carolina was able to get 158 yards rushing against Tennessee, and there were some clear running lanes in the defensive line, especially after Tuttle left. Yes, depth is an issue, but South Carolina is a team that Tennessee should still be able to control the line of scrimmage against.
Darren Kirkland Jr.‘s return definitely aided a defense in need of some play-makers. And while Kirkland, Jr. made several nice tackles, the linebackers looked out of place much of the night and true freshman quarterback Jake Bentley beat Colton Jumper to the outside twice, for two big first downs. Additionally, Bentley was able to find receivers across the middle when he needed to, including the clinching South Carolina drive.
Defensive Backs: D
South Carolina absolutely took advantage of Baylen Buchanan and Justin Martin. Both had missed tackles, blown assignments, and pass interference calls. To allow a freshman quarterback to complete 75% of his passes when facing a rush with Derek Barnett indicates severe deficiencies in the back end. Even steady Todd Kelly missed an easy interception tonight. Nigel Warrior did play well at Safety, especially in run support. Rashaan Gaulden also had some pressure on the quarterback. But Tennessee’s defense of the pass was lacking tonight.
Special Teams: B-
Evan Berry tried to spark the Vols to life, but his kickoff return went for naught. Multiple returns had penalties that set the offense back to start drives. Even the opening kickoff had an offside penalty that cost Tennessee 15 yards. Aaron Medley didn’t get a clean kick off on his 58-yard attempt to tie the game, although that was a tall task. The coverage teams played well tonight.
The Vols came out lifeless and didn’t execute well. That’s on the coaches. Tennessee fans must wonder what happened over the last two weeks. Butch Jones has moved the program forward since the day he arrived on campus. This is the first obvious step backwards. How the team responds to this — next week, and later in the season when the disappointment sets in — will be an indication of how well this staff handles adversity.
But the pressure is now on. And for the first time, the pressure will be coming from many places.
Of course offensive coordinator Mike DeBord will take much of the heat for tonight’s offensive struggles. It’s hard to fault any coach after watching Dobbs’ passing performance and considering the absence of Hurd and Kamara. There’s only so many plays a coach can call when his quarterback is one-hopping passes and he only has one experienced rusher.
Next Week: Tennessee Tech. The Golden Eagles come into Knoxville off of a bye week. Tennessee Tech is 3-5 on the season and averages 24.6 points-per-game on offense. The defense has yielded an average of 28.2 points-per-game. The Golden Eagles won’t challenge Tennessee in any phase of the game. The most important part of next week will be to stay healthy and move on to the Veterans Day game against Kentucky.
Tennessee basically handed the SEC East to Florida tonight. Florida now has to lose two conference games AND Tennessee has to win the rest of their conference games to get to Atlanta. Even at that, Tennessee is still capped at a 9-win regular season. After starting 5-0 with wins over Florida and Georgia, a 9-3 finish, if Tennessee can do it, will ring hollow with Vol fans. It’ll be difficult to watch Florida on December 3rd.