1.) Managing Expectations: I didn’t expect Tennessee to beat Ole Miss. I said before the game that I would consider it a victory if the Vols stayed within 17 points and Justin Worley stayed healthy. Unfortunately, neither happened. There were some things that concerned me about the loss, even though I fully expected a lopsided win by Ole Miss, and I’ll explain those in more length further down. But one thing that leaves me scratching my head is the UT fans who are throwing in the towel on Butch Jones. So let’s repeat: Tennessee wasn’t expected to win this game. Tennessee wasn’t supposed to win this game. Tennessee shouldn’t have won this game. I know that’s obvious to most, but judging from Twitter tonight, not everyone got the memo. This was always going to be a loss. UT is an improving football team, but not good enough to go on the road and upset the nation’s No. 3 team — a team that, in my opinion (and I said this before tonight) is the best team in America right now.
2.) Where does OL fault lie? There is a growing rift within the Tennessee fan base over whether the Vols’ offensive line should be criticized. And it goes all the way to the top, as Jones implied this week that UT fans should lay off the line. But after UT gave up seven sacks to Ole Miss tonight and finished with negative yards on the ground, we’ve once again reconfirmed what we’ve known for a few weeks: This is the worst offensive line in recent UT history. That much isn’t debatable. What is debatable is where the fault lies. Some blame youth . . . and, make no mistake, this is also the youngest offensive line in recent UT history. Clearly, youth plays a role. But I can’t be honest and say that I don’t have concerns about the coaching at that position. When Jones fired Sam Pittman (who is now at Arkansas, coaching an offensive line that is averaging over 300 yards per game on the ground) to make room for his own hire, I felt it was a mistake. Now I’m convinced it was a mistake. It isn’t fair to criticize Don Mahoney, the offensive line coach, for a completely green and inexperienced OL. But when you throw in the fact that last year’s line, with NFL-caliber talent, turned in an underwhelming performance, I think there’s cause for concern. And let’s point out the obvious: we’re more than halfway through the season. If UT’s offensive line woes are due only to inexperience, the line should be getting better. It isn’t. Tennessee has now allowed 19 sacks in its last three games. Nineteen!
3.) Regressing Worley: UT quarterback Justin Worley impressed me with his toughness at Oklahoma. Running for his life with a porous offensive line in front of him, Worley made a couple of crucial mistakes but nonetheless played pretty well. When he followed that up with a really good performance at Georgia, I was sold on his newfound abilities. It had been obvious after the Utah State game that 2014 Worley was improved over 2013 Worley. That was even more obvious after the Arkansas State game. By the end of the Georgia game — which I still maintain Tennessee would have won if Worley hadn’t been injured and missed most of the third quarter — Worley was looking like the SEC’s most improved player. Some red flags started to pop up during the Florida game. Worley did not play well at all. He didn’t look much better against Chattanooga, though it’s hard to take too much away from what was essentially a glorified scrimmage. Tonight, though, Worley had one of the worst games of his life. The offensive line shoulders plenty of burden for UT’s offensive woes against the Rebels, but Worley has more than enough blame to share as well. He repeatedly made bad decisions, made poor throws, and just didn’t look at all comfortable. My biggest concern coming into the game was that Worley would be injured and not be able to finish the season. Ironically, by midway through the third quarter, I was more than ready for Jones to burn Josh Dobbs’ redshirt and insert the sophomore into the game.
4.) Still the best option: Was anyone really surprised that Nathan Peterman fumbled on his second play in the game? I mean, really? I hate it for Peterman, I really do. But he just doesn’t have it. I was still hopeful after a complete debacle at Florida last season. But his third quarter showing at Georgia last month pretty much had be convinced that he isn’t an SEC-level quarterback. I don’t know what “it” is, but Peterman doesn’t have “it.” If the coaches believe that Dobbs isn’t a better option than Worley — which they must believe if they’re going to redshirt him — I will defer to their judgment. As a fan, there’s no way I could possibly be in a better position to judge than they are. So, apparently, Worley — despite his regression — is still Tennessee’s best option. Which means if the Vols are to return to SEC prominence, the quarterback who will lead them there isn’t yet on campus. And that’s sorta depressing, when you think about it.
5.) Bowl eligibility a stretch: After the Utah State game, I said that Justin Worley was much improved, but I still didn’t think he was a good enough quarterback to win SEC games. After the Georgia game, I had completely changed my mind. I said UT would beat a team it wasn’t supposed to beat at some point this season, and Worley would be a major reason why. After the Florida and Ole Miss games, I’m concerned about Tennessee winning any of the remaining games on their schedule, given the way Worley is struggling. If you’re keeping count, you know the magic number is two for Tennessee. That’s all the Vols can lose and still hope for a bowl game. With a visit from Alabama on tap for next Saturday night, that magic number is probably about to become one. There’s very little margin for error. And Missouri — which just drubbed Florida — is still on the schedule, as is a much improved Kentucky team (and South Carolina).
6.) Really, Bajakian? I’ve tried to avoid jumping on the criticism band wagon of Tennessee offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian, but let’s far it: there’s a reason Tennessee fans have been so critical of his play calling. We saw two perfect examples tonight. One was the first drive of the second half. Tennessee had moved inside Ole Miss’s 30-yard-line and had a second down play. Bajakian called a double-reverse trick play, which resulted in a loss of 10 yards and eventually forced a punt. It was a MAC-level play call against the SEC’s best defense. You try a high-risk trick play when you have nothing to lose and need a spark. Not when you’re in position to score. A double-reverse is certainly a high-risk play. A field goal there would’ve made it a one-possession game at 14-6. Late in the game, with Tennessee facing fourth and about a foot at the Ole Miss 41, Bajakian calls a handoff . . . on a night when the Vols had negative yards in the rushing column. With a sizable QB like Peterman under center, why wouldn’t you try a quarterback sneak? The play calling has been mystical at times this season, especially inside the 20-yard-line.
7.) Butch’s stubbornness a problem? Let me make one thing clear: I’m still completely in Butch Jones’ corner. Just about everything he has done with this program has been the right thing. He’s reenergized the fan base (though he’s gonna have to win soon to keep that energy level up), he’s reversed recent trends on the recruiting trail, he’s sold the program to former players and area high school coaches — two groups completely alienated by Derek Dooley. But a lot of UT fans feel the offense is being hamstrung by Mahoney and Bajakian. If that is, in fact, true, and Tennessee will only take the next step with some shuffling on the staff, will Butch Jones be willing to make that move? Mahoney was with him as offensive line coach the entire time he was at Central Michigan and the entire time he was at Cincinnati. The same is true for Bajakian (as offensive coordinator). Clearly, they’re more than just assistants. They’re friends and confidants. Will Jones be willing to pull the trigger on coaching changes even if it’s obvious that they’re needed? Or will he prove loyal to a fault, very similar to Phillip Fulmer? Jones has shown he is pretty stubborn, so that has to be concerning if you’re in the camp who feel that some staff changes might be necessary.
8.) Defense not at fault. Tennessee’s defense played exceptionally well in the first half of the game. Two consecutive busts by true freshman cornerback Emmanuel Moseley led to Ole Miss’s first touchdown, but the second touchdown was mostly on the offense, which gave the Rebels a short field to work with off of a turnover. Coming into the game, I said that Tennessee’s defense would keep the game close and respectable, unless offense and special teams gave the Rebels a short field. The offense (three turnovers) and special teams (one turnover) gave Ole Miss a short field, and it did get ugly. (By the way, don’t fault Evan Berry too much for his fumbled kickoff. It was a disastrous play, but those things happen — especially to freshmen who are brand new to the position. Berry has shown flashes of being a very good return man in just two games at the position.) By the fourth quarter, the defense was simply gassed. The young contributors on the defense continue to be super impressive. Derek Barnett finished with four tackles for loss and two sacks . . . and he’s a true freshman. The incoming recruiting class might be, on paper, the best defensive line recruiting class in recent Tennessee history. Add those guys to John Jancek’s defense and the Vols could be an absolute force to be reckoned with on the defensive side of the football in this league. Let’s not forget that Cam Sutton and Jalon Reeves-Maybin are just sophomores. By 2015, this defense is going to be very good. By 2016 that unit could be one of the best defenses the SEC has seen in a while.
9.) A little quit, maybe? One thing I’ve much admired about the Butch Jones brand of football, despite his 8-11 record at Tennessee, is that his teams don’t have an ounce of quit in them. That was true last season, even though UT’s lack of talent was often exposed in a big way. That has especially been true this season. Tennessee didn’t give up at Oklahoma; they didn’t give up when it appeared Georgia had busted the game wide open down in Athens. They fight until the final second has ticked off the clock. For the first time in the Butch Jones era, I saw a Tennessee team that appeared to quit a little bit tonight. What does that mean? Maybe a little; maybe a lot. Only time will tell.
10.) RUTS, Hugh Freeze. I’m not a fan of running up the score. Although it’s a completely different level, that’s one reason I’m a big fan of Tony Lambert’s brand of football at Oneida High School. No one pulls his starters quicker once the game is in hand than Lambert does. I don’t think you prove anything by rubbing salt in the wound. Tonight, when Ole Miss picked up a first down inside the 10-yard-line with under 1:30 to play, Hugh Freeze could have easily taken a couple of knees and ended the game at 27-3. With that said, do I blame Freeze? I’m not sure. It wasn’t like he was out there throwing passes. He was running the play clock down, then running the football. Tennessee still has a responsibility to tackle the ballcarrier. But one thing I’m absolutely sure of: ESPN’s Brad Nessler — who I’m a big fan of — sounded pretty dumb with his assessment of the situation. Before Ole Miss’s final scoring play, Nessler said, “Ole Miss doesn’t want to score again.” Then, after the touchdown run, he said, “Look at him — he didn’t want that to happen.” Seriously? Brad, really? Didn’t want it to happen? Fault him for doing it, or don’t; I’m kinda “meh” either way. But I’m pretty sure that if Hugh Freeze didn’t want to score again, he’s heard of the victory formation.