By The Associated Press
Identifying Tennessee’s problem is simple: Its defense gives up too many points. Solving the problem has been more complicated.
The Volunteers have allowed 31.5 points per game, the highest average since the 1893 team gave up 42.7 in a six-game season. Tennessee’s struggles this season continued Saturday with a 41-31 loss at No. 19 Mississippi State — which racked up 450 yards on offense.
Next up is No. 1 Alabama, which has scored at least 33 points in each of its first six games.
“We’re not very good right now,” Tennessee coach Derek Dooley said in regard to his defense. “You are what your film is. We don’t get off blocks the way we need to up front. We don’t get enough hats to the football.”
Tennessee (3-3, 0-3 SEC) has given up 429.8 total yards per game. The Vols haven’t given up that many yards per game over the course of an entire season since at least 1950, the earliest year for which the Tennessee media guide includes annual totals for yards allowed. The highest average Tennessee has allowed during that stretch came in 1982, when it gave up 415.7 yards per game.
Even when Tennessee’s defense improves in one area, it backslides in other respects.
The Vols’ biggest weakness on defense had been its penchant for allowing big plays. The Vols headed into Mississippi State having allowed six touchdowns of 50 yards or greater over their last three games. Five of those touchdowns had gone at least 70 yards.
Mississippi State didn’t have any gains longer than 29 yards Saturday, yet the Bulldogs still scored on their first five possessions and sealed the victory by reaching the end zone on their last two drives. Mississippi State owned a 27-14 lead at the intermission to achieve its highest first-half point total in an SEC game since 1994. Mississippi State’s Tyler Russell established career highs in completions (23) and passing yards (291).
Tennessee couldn’t handle the Bulldogs despite getting 21 tackles from sophomore linebacker A.J. Johnson, who became the first Vol to collect at least 20 tackles in a game since Tom Fisher made 21 stops against Auburn on Sept. 26, 1964.
“We just bled to death,” Dooley said.
The Vols continue to hemorrhage against ranked teams and conference foes.
Tennessee is 14-17 overall, 4-15 in SEC games and 0-13 against Top 25 opponents since Dooley took over the program in 2010. The Vols have lost 10 of their last 11 SEC games. Dooley’s first two years at Tennessee resulted in the Vols’ first consecutive losing seasons since 1909-11, when the Vols had three straight losing years.
This latest loss will lead to more questions about Dooley’s job security. Alabama’s arrival next weekend also will bring more attention to new Vols defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri, who worked as Alabama’s linebackers coach last year. Tennessee placed 28th in total defense and 36th in scoring defense last year under former defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, who now has the same position at Washington. The Vols currently rank 87th in total defense and 90th in scoring defense.
Tennessee switched from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 scheme this year, and teams occasionally struggle in their first year making that adjustment. Senior linebacker Herman Lathers refused to blame the new scheme or the staff for the defense’s struggles. He instead cited a lack of execution.
“It’s definitely us,” Lathers said. “Busts. Missed assignments. Missed alignments. Not playing our right gap. Not tearing off blocks and making plays. It’s on us, not the coaches.”
The defense occasionally shows flashes of potential. The Vols held Mississippi State without a first down in the third quarter. Two weeks ago, Tennessee didn’t allow a first down in the fourth quarter of a 51-44 loss to Georgia.
But those moments haven’t come nearly often enough. One good quarter of defense wasn’t enough to beat Mississippi State or Georgia, and it almost certainly wouldn’t be enough to stay competitive against Alabama.
Tennessee must deliver a more complete performance. The Vols remain confident they can do that.
“We’ve got a lot of games left,” junior outside linebacker Jacques Smith said. “We’ve got a lot of ball left. We determine our destiny as a football team. I know we’re going to get the job done.”