Alabama 41 - Tennessee 17
Some thoughts...first, credit Alabama. You dream about playing like that against your rivals, and I know the Tide folks will enjoy it, and they earned it. Congratulations.
Now that we've got that out of the way...
Tennessee's loss today, coupled with South Carolina's loss to Vanderbilt, means that only Kentucky has one loss in the SEC East. If the Gators - eight point favorites and currently tied 7-7 with the Cats - win, everyone in the SEC East will have at least two losses. And if Kentucky wins, the Vols will once again be right back in control of their own destiny.
So we say that to make a couple points...that it's a crazy year, and that it's not over.
Now, let's talk about everything else.
If you're going to get beat 59-20 and 41-17, you absolutely do not do so against Florida and Alabama if you're the University of Tennessee. You have three performances on the road that make you question everything about this team, and one performance at home to put some potentially false hope in. If you're even more optimistic than me, you could reason that the next four are in Knoxville. But the reality is, no matter how good the offense has played the majority of the time, this team as a whole has been subpar to this point. And the defense has been so unbelieveably bad, in big games like this one you feel like the offense has to score everytime they touch the ball. Alabama didn't punt today until the game was out of hand, and John Parker Wilson and DJ Hall set several Alabama records. Unacceptable.
So the circumstances of the year leave room for hope - and a tangible hope at that if Kentucky wins - but the reality of the on-field product leaves room for speculation and great disappointment. So even if UK wins today, and before you even deal with questions of if the Vols are good enough to beat them, or Arkansas, or anyone other than South Carolina next week...even if Tennessee is in control of its own destiny, all is not well in Knoxville.
The balance of these two things must be remembered - and that is why I will again say how fruitless and damaging it is to judge the future of a head coach in the present moment of a season, and that everyone should just shut their mouths until 2007 is over - but the Vols have to get better, and at this point, seven games in, you have to seriously consider if they will on defense. Can Tennessee play well enough to win these still-meaningful games down the stretch?
Our defensive line is a non-factor. We haven't been gashed by a major running back, which makes one question them less and put the blame on our young secondary. But the reality is, when Alabama is playing at the last minute without two OL starters, and you can't get a legitimate sack or any real pressure at all, all game, and all year...the defensive line is the biggest problem. Can we really expect them to get better from this point?
The linebackers can hit, but they don't wrap up and finish tackles as much as they should. And as stated, the secondary is brutally young. Seeing the other team's punter is the exception and no longer the expectation. You're asking an offense that has its moments, no doubt, to be perfect. And then you're digging holes that allow a running back like Arian Foster, who's having a sensational day, to finish with only 13 carries because we have to throw. How did they play so well against Georgia? I don't know. How did it get so bad so fast on defense? I don't know.
So as we watch Florida take a 14-7 lead, the fragile balance between having something to play for and hoping the Gators lose rears its head again after a welcome two week absence. There will be questions, and they are warranted. And Phillip Fulmer will be accountable - even he would tell you that - though he is accountable for the entire season, so his fate need not be decided until it's over. And I hope Mike Hamilton would tell you that.
Winning, of course would make everything better. And a championship season is still on the table today, even if Florida wins in Lexington. But what's also on the table - and right now appears more realistic - are more losses and more of this. So in keeping with the week to week thing, Tennessee has to wise up, and better be better at rebounding than South Carolina, who had an equally deflating loss today. Both of those teams will be looking at themselves in the mirror and thinking "we're not as good as we thought we were." And one of them will be thinking that next Saturday night as well. The Vols have to do whatever it takes to make sure that's not them again next week. There is still good here that can be saved. But there is much work to be done, and if there is any way to get better on defense, the Vols better find it, and the offense needs to continue to execute against what will be the best defense they've seen all year next week. This sucks today, no other way to put it, and it's embarassing for all involved with the Vol program. I still believe Tennessee can be good enough to get it fixed. But the hour is extremely nigh, and it's becoming, quite literally, now or never. And we're going to find out which one it's going to be very, very soon.