Going into a much-needed bye week, the Vols stand with a 5-2 (2-2 SEC) record and remain ranked in the top 25 after seven games. But the last two weeks have left a bit of a sour taste in Vol fans’ mouths, and for good reason.
When you put the last two weeks into perspective, especially this past Saturday’s loss, you begin to understand why the Vols have dropped their last two games. And it may help explain part of the reason Tennessee looked so outmatched against Alabama on Saturday.
Let’s start off with the obvious: Tennessee’s injuries.
The Vols have sustained a startling amount of injuries this season, and they had even more players go down during Saturday’s game. The Vols were down nine players before kickoff on Saturday, and seven of them had made at least one start prior to the game. Then during the game, the Vols lost another five players, including four players who started the game.
Here’s a list of all the players the Vols were missing before kickoff:
- Jalen Reeves-Maybin, LB
- Darrin Kirkland Jr., LB
- Cam Sutton, CB
- Dylan Wiesman, OL
- Malik Foreman, DB
- Jashon Robertson, OL
- Alexis Johnson, DL (didn’t dress out before game)
- Cortez McDowell, LB
- Quart’e Sapp, LB
- Danny O’Brien, DL (kicked off team)
- Preston Williams, WR (transferred)
Now here are the players the Vols lost during the game and who never returned on Saturday:
- Brett Kendrick, OL
- Chance Hall, OL
- Kahlil McKenzie, DL
- Micah Abernathy, DB
Only defensive lineman Kendall Vickers was able to come back in the game after sustaining an injury. It’s unclear if Hall was injured or not, but he never came back in after exiting early in the game regardless.
The Vols were down 10 defensive players at one point on Saturday. Of those 10 players, seven had made at least one start on the season. And four of those injuries were at linebacker, a position the Vols already weren’t extremely deep at. Tennessee should still have been able to tackle better and get in position better than they did against Alabama, but being down that many players will hurt even the deepest of teams.
Injuries didn’t just affect what the defense could do, however. The offense was equally hurt by injuries.
The offensive line ended up being down four starters by the end of the first half. Tennessee was so desperate for offensive line help that they were forced to play true freshman Marcus Tatum, who is listed at 6-foot-6, 265 pounds, at tackle. Redshirt freshman Venzell Boulware also had to play significant snaps against Alabama’s front seven.
And with all those injuries on the offensive line, Tennessee’s offense struggled to find consistency.
Was the offensive play-calling suspect at times? It sure appeared to be. But the play-calling and effectiveness of certain plays were undoubtedly affected by the bevvy of injuries on the offensive line.
It didn’t help that Tennessee was playing the best defense they had faced all season either.
Alabama came in only allowing 69 rushing yards a game to opponents. They held the Vols to a mere 32 yards on 32 carries, including a career-worst -31 yards to Josh Dobbs thanks to three sacks and a few more tackles for loss. Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara combined to run for just 49 yards on 21 carries.
Part of that lack of production is a direct result of Tennessee’s beleaguered offensive line. But blaming injuries and injuries alone isn’t the right call. The Vols simply couldn’t execute against Alabama’s defense. Nor could Tennessee’s defense contain Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts from running the ball at will. Or any of Alabama’s running backs for that matter.
Tennessee’s injuries can’t be used as a cover-all excuse for their poor play on Saturday. The Vols have recruited well enough to be able to handle some injuries, and the coaching staff should be able to call a game plan to mask some of those deficiencies. The sheer number of injuries Tennessee has sustained would make it difficult on any staff to overcome, but those injuries alone don’t explain the massive decline in production for the Vols on Saturday.
The Vols need this upcoming bye week more than they ever have any bye week in previous memory. Using injuries as an excuse to completely wipe away Tennessee’s two losses is irresponsible, but they do help explain part of the reason the Vols had such a drop-off on Saturday.