There is no question that Tennessee’s 40-13 victory at Louisiana State was a huge building block for the Vols’ football program.
A win that was something Tennessee wouldn’t have pulled off with any kind of consistency over the past 15 years or so, so yes, this was significant.
This might have been the most solid performance by Tennessee in the Josh Heupel era. The offense showed that it wasn’t a one-trick pony, running for 263 yards this week, although quarterback Hendon Hooker was efficient through the air, going 17-27 for 239 yards. How about Bru McCoy? The USC-transfer receiver seemed to be Johnny on the spot with seven catches for 140 yards.
On the ground, Jabari Small carried 22 times for 128 yards and two scores. The Vols had 502 yards on offense.
Yes, the defense still allowed a bit too much. LSU quarterback Jayden Daniels had a breakout game, (where have we seen this before?) throwing for 300 yards. But the Vol defense forced LSU and its head coach Brian Kelly into a few tactical mistakes. LSU pretty much abandoned the run, managing just 55 yards for the game. Meanwhile, Kelly opted to go for it on fourth down late in the first half and on his side of the field instead of punting. The Tigers didn’t make it. That resulted in a 10-point cushion for Tennessee, who kicked a field goal to end the half and started the second half with the ball…and a touchdown drive.
By the way, LSU as 0-3 on fourth down, resulting in three Tennessee scores.
The defense still was frustrating, but it turned in its best performance of the year. If you are a Tennessee fan, you likely will have to live with this bend-but-don’t-break mentality on defense because that’s what the Vols did last Saturday.
Keep in mind in all three games against ranked opponents this year (Pitt, Florida and LSU), the defense turned in a big play to end the game. Pitt quarterback Nick Patti was sacked on fourth down in overtime to end the game. Kamal Hadden picked off Anthony Richardson to end the Florida game. Saturday, Trevon Flowers picked off a pass to end LSU’s quest for a late, cosmetic score.
The defense is incrementally getting better.
Alabama is next. This is a team that knows how to win, knows how to deal with adversity and has been doing it for a long time. Institutionally, Alabama knows how to win games like this next week. The Tide beat Texas A&M 24-20 in an emotional game last Saturday and hasn’t looked as consistently good as we’ve seen in the past.
After taking down LSU, I heard a lot of Tennessee fans confidently proclaiming the 15-year victory dearth against Alabama is about to end. I’m not ready to say that yet. Yes, both teams have a lot of questions.
Tennessee’s secondary is suspect, but so are Alabama’s receivers. Bryce Young may not play. Cedric Tillman may not play either. But both could. Alabama isn’t the proficient road team it once was. Has Tennessee really played anybody yet? On and on it goes.
Last year, if you’ll recall, Tennessee was competitive with the Tide, trailing by a touchdown going into the fourth quarter before Alabama depth consumed the Vols. I figure the Vols will be competitive with Alabama again this year. I could be wrong, but the days of 30-point Alabama victories at Neyland may be over.
I thought the Vols would win at LSU way back in January, also proclaiming that they would go 10-2 with setbacks to Alabama and Georgia. I haven’t come off that stance yet. I’ll say this, Tennessee, I believe, has closed the gap with the SEC powerbrokers, but I still say the Vols are a year or so away from having the necessary depth to take the upper echelon down.
But it is the crazy 2022 college football season and, as we’ve seen, anything can happen.
Tennessee still has a lot of questions to answer this year. Maybe it will answer one more on Saturday.
Jim Steele is a correspondent for Magic Valley Publishing and the host of The Pressbox, which airs 4-6 p.m. CT, Monday-Thursday on 95.9, WRJB FM, Camden, Tenn.