By Mitch Light
These are not good times on Rocky Top.
The University of Tennessee football team, one of the more storied programs in college football, is 0–4 in the SEC for the second straight season. And it is not a competitive 0–4. The Vols have lost the four games by an average of 32.0 points and have been outgained by an average of 147.3 yards.
Yes, the schedule has been grueling — you can argue that no team in the nation has faced a more difficult conference slate to date — but this is Tennessee we are talking about. The Vols are used to being one of the elite teams in the league. They are accustomed to handing out the beatings — not being on the receiving end. A tough schedule was never used as an excuse from 1989 through 2004, when the Vols went 98–26–1 in SEC play. Tough schedules didn’t matter back then. Tennessee was often better than everyone else.
Tennessee has slipped down several notches in the SEC food chain in the past decade and faces a difficult climb back to relevance.
This year’s Volunteer club had tremendous potential on offense, but those hopes were dashed when wide receiver Justin Hunter went down with a knee injury against Florida and quarterback Tyler Bray broke his thumb in the fourth quarter of a loss to Georgia.
The Vols were forced to take on the two premier defensive teams in the nation (LSU and Alabama) without their two best offensive players. The results weren’t surprising: 13 total points, 17 total first downs and 394 total yards.
The schedule softens up in the final month of the regular season, but the Vols will apparently forge ahead with a true freshman at quarterback. Derek Dooley opted to burn Justin Worley’s redshirt in the fourth quarter of the seventh game of the season. With Bray’s return uncertain — UT hopes he can return for Game 11, vs. Vanderbilt — Dooley and his staff obviously believe Worley, who has yet to attempt a pass, gives them a better chance to win than fifth-year senior Matt Simms, the starter in each of the last two games.
Tennessee, at 3-4 overall, needs to win three of its final five games to become bowl-eligible. One of those games, however, is a trip to Arkansas, where the Vols figure to be heavy underdogs. That reduces UT’s margin for error in the other four games. Chalk up the home date with Middle Tennessee as a sure win. Can this team, with a true freshman at quarterback the rest of the way, go 2–1 against South Carolina, Vanderbilt and Kentucky? The guess here is yes. But the fact that we are even asking the question shows how far this program has fallen.
AROUND THE SEC
• Jarrett Lee continued his efficient play, completing 14-of-20 passes for 165 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions in LSU’s win over Auburn. Lee has 13 touchdowns and one INT in 155 attempts this season.
• Zac Stacy rushed for 198 yards in Vanderbilt’s 44–21 win over Army. It was the third-highest single-game total in school history, trailing Frank Mordica (321 yards vs. Air Force in 1978) and Doug Matthews (214 yards vs. Tulane in 1969). Stacy is averaging 7.4 yards per carry this season.
• Arkansas’ Tyler Wilson failed to throw a touchdown pass in the Hogs’ win against Ole Miss. It was the first time all season he did not throw a TD and it was the first time since November 2009 that Arkansas as a team did not have at least one TD pass.
• Kentucky beat Jacksonville State 38–14 last weekend. The Wildcats had scored a total of 37 points during their four-game losing streak.
• Tennessee has forced only six turnovers in seven games. South Carolina has forced 24.
• LSU’s Rueben Randle leads the SEC with six receptions of 40 yards or longer.
• Kentucky only has 58 plays from scrimmage of 10 yards or more, the fewest in the league by 14. Arkansas has 123 plays of 10 yards or more.
• Ole Miss has only made 14 trips into the Red Zone this season. Only two teams nationally, FAU and Kent State, have fewer.