Alabama, if they hadn’t already, firmly entrenched themselves as the unquestioned best team in college football today by blasting Tennessee 49-10. It was an absolute massacre, a beat down, an ass kicking. Though, if we were being honest with ourselves, we probably should’ve seen this demolition coming from a mile away. Think about all the factors working against the Vols:
1. Alabama is the clear national title favorite. This victory gave them four road or neutral site victories this season (vs USC, at Ole Miss, at Arkansas, at Tennessee). They’ve scored at least 34 points every week, have had only one game decided by less than 19 points, and have given up 10 points or less five times. I don’t think any team in the country is remotely close to them right now.
2. Tennessee, to steal a line from last week, has had more wounded players than the aftermath of the Battle of Antietam. Jalen Reeves-Maybin is out for the season, Darrin Kirkland hasn’t played since the Battle at Bristol, Cam Sutton’s been gone since the Ohio game, Cortez McDowell didn’t play this week, and neither did Malik Foreman. The offensive line has been a revolving door of injuries and poor play (they’ve started five different combinations in seven weeks), and Danny O’Brien’s dismissal takes away their best space eating, run-stuffing defensive lineman. They just couldn’t stop the run today, as Alabama pushed around their backups and third-stringers all day en route to 438 rushing yards. The effect of all defensive injuries were evident last week; once O’Brien and McDowell went down in the fourth quarter, A&M gashed them for the rest of the afternoon. It only made sense that ‘Bama, a more physical team with more athletes, was going to destroy them in that area.
3. The effect of three straight highly emotional, rapidly changing, heart-racing games was eventually going to catch up to them. There’s not a team in the country more in need of a bye week than the Vols. They’re gassed, both mentally and physically, and it showed. They just didn’t look like they had anything left in the tank. They need a week to get healthy, catch their breath, and refocus.
This game is simple to explain: the better team absolutely destroyed the inferior team, one that was emotionally drained while at the same time being unable to oppose them because they missing basically half of their starting defense. This result makes sense. But it doesn’t mean I like it.
After the game, my father and I, as we often do, were talking about the state of the program. He hates losing to the Tide as much as anyone, but he does feel positive about where program is going. And mostly, I agree with him. I think pretty much every Vol fan has to at this point right? The talent is clearly better now than it was three years ago, they compete pretty much every week, and the optimism amongst the fan base is as high as it’s been in at least 15 years. For better or worse, we’ve tacitly accepted the Butchisms and platitudes as just part of who Coach Jones is, and because he’s a legitimately nice person, we want him to succeed.
I lost my freaking mind when they came back on Florida and Dobbsnail Booted Georgia two weeks in a row, and I took my seat next to a lot of you guys who had been riding the Butch train for years. Heck, I wrote this after the Florida game:
Obviously, Butch, someone who just bought himself a ridiculous amount of good will and time with boosters and fans, deserves a ton of credit. Beating Florida and exorcising ELEVEN YEARS of demons was the final step for him, at least for me.
It’s funny how certain games completely shape the narrative, either positively or negatively, for a coach. For example, in 2013, Auburn won two miracles, the Prayer in Jordan Hare, and the Kick Six. If they lose both those games (and it’s entirely possible that they would’ve), then Gus Malzahn finishes Year 1 with three losses, no SEC Title, no life-long memories, and without the “he’s an offensive genius” narrative. And, during the following two years, when he posted records of 8-5 and 7-6, with no home SEC wins in Year 3, he definitely would've been fired and not allowed within 300 miles of the state of Alabama ever again. Heck, he’s on the hot seat now, and might've been fired tonight if the Tigers weren't able to beat LSU . But because that 2013 season happened, there’s still the hope, no matter how miniscule, that he can recapture the magic of that year, because the fans have seen him do it before. With Butch, we didn’t have that idea until now, because he’d never done it. But now he has, and he’ll forever be able to point to this game, the one we all wanted for so long, and it will be hard for us to say anything against him. He has us all in the palm of his hand. I hope we don't get crushed.
I think I, in typical dumb fan guy fashion, let the emotions of two games get the best of me, causing me to abandon all critical thought. It forced me to put my arms around someone who clearly still has flaws as a head coach. It's funny how winning, particularly in the the way that Tennessee has done it, makes everyone forget about the problems in a program, and the limitations of their head coach. The palm is closing in around us, and I’m trying to squirm out from under it. Or at least step one foot off the train.
Here's the problem: Butch’s teams have never consistently played 60 minute games. I’ll throw out his first two years because they were out-manned and out-gunned almost every week, but the last year and half has been colored by wild, rapid, unpredictable changes in level of play from quarter to quarter. In 2015, they couldn’t hold onto leads, as they blew three thirteen point advantages, and were unable to put away Alabama despite leading in the fourth quarter of that contest. This season, it's been the opposite; they’ve trailed by double digits in the first half in six of seven games, and needed a balls-to-the-wall pace and an unbelievable amount of luck to either come back and win, or at least make it competitive almost every week. The blown leads last year could almost be pinned directly on Butch’s suspect clock management decisions and the ultra-conservative play calling down the stretch. This season’s slow starts have to go on the coaching staff too, don’t they? They’ve been flat, unprepared, and almost disinterested early in all seven weeks, and the play calling in the first half has been almost exclusively dreadful. I think literally every Vol fan hates Mike Debord, and he definitely should take some of the blame, but to be fair to him, it’s hard to put it all on his shoulders when the offensive line is as leaky as a broken sink, or when the receivers drop the ball like it’s hot.
Then again, how many games do we have to go through before we realize that this offense needs Josh Dobbs’s feet to be successful? His one carry in the first quarter simply isn’t enough. They almost never call designed runs for him anymore, and it ridiculous that his best asset isn't being utilized. He’s, at best, an average passer, and he’s certainly not accurate enough to slowly matriculate the ball down the field by making the underneath-to-medium range throws. Dobbs’s pinnacle as passer is when he has time to drop back, sit in the pocket, read through his progressions, and launch the ball down the field to his taller-than-average receivers who are can outjump smaller corners in one-on-one matchups. The problem is, he never has time, and because the offensive line has such a hard time getting a push, they can never establish a running game that would help the receivers get single coverage on the outside.
Another thing: I love Jalen Hurd’s heart, attitude, and demeanor, but isn’t there pretty good evidence to suggest that Alvin Kamara is actually a superior back for this system? Hurd would be better in an I-Formation, where his enormous frame running as hard as he possibly could downhill would be lethal. He absolutely bowls over people when he goes mano y mano and takes on defenders like he's a gladiator fighting for his life, but he needs a running start to reach that point; Kamara doesn’t. He’s quicker, is better at running outside the tackles, and is much more effective in the passing game. Hurd’s a better blocker, which is actually important considering Tennessee couldn’t stop a pee wee defensive line from getting into the backfield, but Kamara is deadly when the Vols decide to play fast, a pace that flipped the game three straight weeks against UF, UGA, and A&M. I’d like to see them come out in the hurry up from the very beginning, instead of this methodical and ineffective “Hurd Right, Hurd Left, incomplete pass, punt” offense that’s exclusively made up their first halves all season.
Today’s game isn’t the worst thing in the world; again, they were probably going to get pounded no matter what. Alabama was vastly superior in the trenches and all over the field, as Tennessee was so worn down from injuries and the emotional drainage of the last three weeks. But the lack of being able to play a 60 minute game is starting to become an indictment on the Butch era, and it's punched holes in his long term viability as the savior of the program. When is this offensive line going to be competent? Why can Tennessee only be effective when they play as fast as a speeding bullet? If the goal is to win the SEC, Butch is going to have to eventually go through Alabama. Nick Saban is the target he’s going to have to shoot down, something Butch hasn't been close to doing in three of four tries. I’m not sure he’ll ever be up for it, and I'm not sure anyone is really, but they won't have a chance in hell they can’t consistently string together 60 minute games against legitimate SEC foes.
Despite all the negativity the last two weeks, the Vols still have an excellent shot to win out and find themselves in Atlanta, where they’ll more than likely face ‘Bama again, this time with what is hopefully a fully intact roster. An SEC Title Game appearance will give Butch the longest leash a Tennessee coach has enjoyed since Philip Fulmer after the ’98 season. For better or worse, we’re married to him. I'll being praying to Thor himself that he's the guy I tricked myself into thinking he was three weeks ago.