By Jim Steele
I don’t want to hear about how Alabama gets all the calls. I don’t want to hear about playing in a hostile environment.
I don’t want to hear about how the TV announcers seemingly favor Alabama. I don’t want to hear about how Nick Saban has the officials in his hip pocket.
That’s football. You overcome those distractions. Alabama does. Georgia does. Ohio State does. Even Florida has this year.
Let’s face it, Alabama just plain ole’ beat Tennessee and had a scoop-and-score in the fourth quarter just to rub it in.
The simple truth is this: Tennessee is not a great football team. It’s not even a very good team. I might categorize this team as decent, certainly better than anything Jeremy Pruitt fielded. But this is not a great team. This team thrives too much in respect to living on the edge.
How does Tennessee lead 20-7 at halftime and seemingly board the bus before the third quarter begins? This was a classic case of Jekyll and Tide. Guys, football is a four-quarter game. Tennessee couldn’t answer the bell in the second half. You don’t get on the bus to go home at halftime.
It’s puzzling because the Vols dominated Alabama in the first half. Dominated. They cruised to a 20-7 lead at the half. The Tennessee fan in me felt a bit uneasy at the half. Tennessee had two drives in the red zone bog down and it had to settle for field goals. Tennessee should have been up 28-7 at the break.
I’m not sure that would have mattered, though.
Who knows? It might have changed the way both coaches approached the second half. Again, I’m not sure it would have mattered much.
Alabama came out in the second half and made a statement out of the blocks. The Tide had a big run to start the third, then completed a long TD pass. Two plays, 75 yards and Tennessee was shell shocked.
What happened to the running game? Tennessee’s leading rusher was Joe Milton Jr. with 59 yards. What happened to this vaunted pass rush? Okay, three sacks of Milroe weren’t bad. Alabama adjustments made a difference. Bama adjusted and Tennessee didn’t.
People want to hammer Josh Heupel, and he is due criticism after that performance in Tuscaloosa, but he still has this team at 5-2 thus far. That’s better than what Tennessee could have hoped for three years ago. Sure, some of his play-calling and decision-making was dicey, especially going for it on fourth down deep in Tennessee territory. The gambit failed.
Some people say Milton isn’t an SEC quarterback. I agree. I wonder what happened to the guy who led the Vols to the Orange Bowl victory, the same guy who won the game’s MVP after routing Clemson.
The truth is this: Heupel would lose the locker room if he replaced Milton. Milton is the team’s guy, despite the fact that he misses more than he hits on the deep ball (when they throw it), that he’s not that mobile and that his decision-making is suspect. Replacing him would splinter the team. The players love him.
Right now, Heupel doesn’t need to create any unnecessary drama in the clubhouse, even though fans are clamoring for it. I’m not sure Nico Iamaleava is ready yet. I’m told he’s looked good in practice, but isn’t ready. Others say they think he’s ready. I’d hate to throw him to the Lions. This will be his team next year. With the recruits Tennessee has coming in, Heupel will begin to build a juggernaut.
In the meantime, the Vols needed to score touchdowns in the red zone. Tennessee must convert on fourth-and-inches. Tennessee can’t go into the red zone and come away empty. You can’t turn the ball over. You can’t have eight penalties. But Tennessee did and that’s why it lost. It’s not because Alabama coach Nick Saban paid the officials and other similar nonsense I hear from wounded Big Orange fans.
Tennessee just plain ole’, flat out got beat by a team that wasn’t that much better. The difference? Alabama executed in the second half. Tennessee played ‘possum.
It shouldn’t have happened that way.
Meanwhile, Tennessee needs to let this ignominious loss burn in its belly when it goes to Kentucky next Saturday.
It’s one thing to get shelled by Alabama, it’s quite another to squander opportunities away at Kentucky. We’ll see what this team is made of. One thing is certain: the film session Sunday was very likely intense, perhaps painful.
But we have to be honest. This is not a great Tennessee team. That was made clear in Gainesville and Tuscaloosa.
Jim Steele is a correspondent for Magic Valley Publishing.