There hasn’t been much consistent about Tennessee football this season. The things they do well— rushing the passer and running the football— they’ve done poorly at times. The things they don’t do well— cover and throw the ball— they’ve done well at times.
But there’s one consistent thread in all four of Tennessee’s losses: when the opponent hit the Vols in the mouth, they’ve been unable to respond.
Florida scored 26 straight points in what was a disastrous second quarter. Tennessee built a 13-point halftime lead at Alabama before the Crimson Tide scored the game’s final 27 points. Missouri scored the final 33 points last week and Georgia scored 24 straight first half points to take control of Saturday’s matchup.
Tennessee’s inability to respond to adversity is undeniable. But why?
Senior linebacker Aaron Beasley couldn’t put his finger on it postgame. Tennessee coach Josh Heupel did his best but struggled to come up with an answer.
“I don’t think there is just one common thread,” Heupel said. “I thought in this one our guys continued to compete. I’m gonna speak from the offensive side of it, being able to sustain and make the competitive play in this one. You know what I mean? Because I felt like this is different than early in the year when we were at Florida. At the end of the day, as a program, you gotta find a way to get it on Saturday afternoon and that’s everybody, from me to the assistants, everybody that suits up and goes out there.”
To Heupel’s point, Georgia’s run against Tennessee was different than Florida. The Vols folded against Florida. The same can be said about Alabama and maybe Missouri. It didn’t feel that way against Georgia. It simply felt like the Bulldogs were a far superior team and they played like it.
Tennessee’s third-year head coach has been adamant that it’s not an effort problem and I tend to agree with him. A working theory is that the Vols’ have been unable to make singular plays to flip the momentum back in games. Tennessee’s pass rush hasn’t made any big plays in those stretches and its passing attack is so limited that it’s been unable to get things back on track.
In Tennessee’s lone come from behind win this season, Dee Williams returned a punt for a touchdown. That was the play that propelled the Vols to the victory. They’ve been unable to do that in any loss and while that falls more on the offense it’s also on the defense.
What does the trend say about Tennessee?
It’s obviously a very bad characteristic. Sports teams always preach responding to adversity the right way and getting back up when you get knocked down.
Tennessee’s been unable to do that but I’m not sure what it means about this team or for the program long term. It could be a result of bad leadership, but maybe not. It could be as simple as this Tennessee team having radical limitations.
It’s unfair to consider it a program problem at this point because it wasn’t an issue for Tennessee in either of Josh Heupel’s first two seasons. But four games in one season is a trend and trends can easily become a habit— especially for young players.
Losing is a habit and the belief that things are going to spiral once something goes wrong can be debilitating for any team. Tennessee football saw that in all the worst ways during the Butch Jones era.
So while I’m unsure of why this has become a trend or what it says about this specific team and the program as a whole, I’m positive Tennessee has to nip it in the bud and it should be a major emphasis for Heupel and his staff this offseason.