Tennessee’s season has seen its highs and lows through six games.
The Vols kicked off 2015 with a dominant win against Bowling Green before collapsing against Oklahoma in Week 2, despite a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter.
History repeated itself as Tennessee dominated Western Carolina in Week 3, only to fall victim to blown leads against Florida and Arkansas the next two weeks.
Coach Butch Jones — once revered as the savior of an ailing football program — became a pariah among Tennessee fans. In Year 3, Jones faced sudden criticism and unrest from the dire fan base and seemed all but doomed heading into Week 6.
But the tables turned for the Vols last Saturday as they found themselves facing a double-digit lead in the second quarter against Georgia. Tennessee managed to cut its deficit to seven just before halftime, went back-and-forth with the Bulldogs through the next two quarters and escape with a 38-31 victory.
Now it seems that Jones and co., have new life entering their bye week. Aside from next week’s game against Alabama, Tennessee should be favored in each of its remaining games and could end its regular season with eight wins.
Obviously, its a step below the team’s high preseason expectations. Many picked the Vols to be a dark horse contender capable of threatening heavily-favored Georgia for the SEC East title.
Saturday’s win was expected to be one of the deciding factors in an otherwise open division. But it turns out that Florida is a lot farther along in first-year coach Jim McElwain’s rebuilding project and Georgia — sans Nick Chubb — is a beatable team.
Still, Tennessee could easily be 6-0 had its coaching staff provided better late-game management. The Vols’ passive scheme played the biggest factor in the offense’s inability to score late, which allowed opponents to rally.
Oddly enough, Saturday’s game showcased a completely different Tennessee team. With their backs against the wall, the Vols managed to rally and — for the first time in years — had things go their way regarding that “little bit of luck” that can sway momentum in a football game.
There have been highs and lows for Tennessee through its first six games. Here are some of the highs:
The Hendersonville native has been Tennessee’s best offensive player, which was also the case during his freshman campaign. But with the addition of Alvin Kamara — whose also been great through his first six games with the team — and a slightly improved offensive line, Hurd is even better in Year Two.
Hurd’s 572 yards ranks fifth among SEC backs and his seven touchdowns trails only Heisman favorite and LSU star Leonard Fournette and Alabama’s Derrick Henry — and is tied with injured Georgia back Nick Chubb — for third.
There is no family more beloved by Tennessee fans than the Berrys. Eric — a Thorpe Award winner, all-pro NFL safety and cancer survivor — is the only Vol to rival Peyton Manning as the most popular former player of the modern era. His father, James, was a former captain o and played running back from 1978-81.
Now Evan Berry is emerging as a star for the Vols in his second season. He became the first Tennessee returner since Willie Gault to score on multiple kick returns. Berry’s 39.3 yards per return and 91.7 yards per game average rank second in the FBS.
Now, let’s look at the lows:
Playing too passive
In each of Tennessee’s losses it seemed like the coaching staff was focused more on “trying not to lose” than actually winning. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened as an overly conservative scheme halted the offense late and allowed teams to mount a comeback.
Josh Dobbs — whether because of his lack of accuracy on deep passes or just the coaches’ unwillingness — was rarely allowed to throw the football beyond the line of scrimmage. The playcalling of “run, screen, screen” isn’t fooling anyone, especially not in the SEC.
Tennessee entered the season with several players falling victim to injuries in fall camp. Starting cornerback Rashaan Gaulden needed to undergo surgery in August, Marquez North has battled through lingering injuries since fall camp and — most recently — freshman defensive tackle Shy Tuttle suffered a broken leg that will force him to miss the remainder of the season.
Both Tennessee’s season and Jones’ job were saved by last week’s rally. The Vols could finish with a 9-4 record — including a bowl win — if their only remaining loss comes against Alabama in Week 8. Obviously, the late-game collapses hurt, but they provide a reference for improvement next season as the roster becomes more experienced.