KNOXVILLE — Long faces arrived at Neyland Stadium in the hours leading up to kickoff as Tennessee fans carried less hope of beating rival Alabama than perhaps in any previous meeting.
By the second half, all that remained ahead for everyone wearing orange was a long ride home and another long wait for being competitive again against the Crimson Tide.
In fact, after Saturday's 44-13 clobbering by the top-ranked Tide, hope of competing with the upper echelon of the Southeastern Conference seems even more distant than before the latest renewal of the Third Saturday in October rivalry.
That Alabama's offense would have success was a given considering both the Crimson Tide's precision and the ineptitude of the Volunteers' defense. Sure enough, the Tide rolled up 539 yards (the third of four SEC foes to gain more than 500 against UT), led by quarterback AJ McCarron's career-high 306 yards and four touchdowns, while Amari Cooper set a freshman record for Alabama with seven catches for 162 yards and two TDs.
So the Vols' chances of threatening Alabama, or even possibly giving embattled coach Derek Dooley a badly needed signature win, rested in the hands of Tennessee's offense. Facing an Alabama defense that came in giving up just 1.8 yards per rush and 55.3 rushing yards a game and a total of five touchdowns and one field goal, falling behind early meant certain defeat.
And that's the script the game followed.
A combination of head-scratching play calls and playmakers who simply didn't make plays led to an early deficit and helped Alabama do what it does best on the road — sucking all the hope out of the air for the home team.
UT's offense found success at times, totaling 282 yards. But as it did in the second half against Florida and the fourth quarters at Georgia and Mississippi State, the Vols did just enough right to tease their fans, only to leave them grumbling and booing as they exited the stadium early.
Junior quarterback Tyler Bray again was erratic against a legitimate defense, completing 13 of 27 passes for 184 yards and two interceptions, while overthrowing several open receivers early.
"I'm really disappointed with the play of the offense," Dooley said afterward. "That's what I was surprised by. The quarterback didn't play well. We didn't capitalize on our chances, and when you do that against that team, they just keep pushing and pushing. It's what they do to everybody else, and they did it to us tonight."
A field goal on the Vols' third possession cut Alabama's early lead to 7-3, but it was the UT offense that turned the game completely in favor of the Tide. After two incompletions, Bray was intercepted by C.J. Mosely at the Vols' 32 and Alabama needed just four plays to score and push its lead to 13-3.
UT failed to convert on third down on the next possession as Bray threw high, and Alabama took advantage in four plays again, this time covering 72 yards in a drive highlighted by a 54-yard completion to Cooper.
After fighting back with a TD midway through the second quarter, UT had a chance to cut further into the lead just before halftime, but for the third consecutive game Justin Hunter dropped a momentum-shifting pass. His drop would have been a huge gain inside the 20 with less than a minute left before halftime, but instead UT wound up inexplicably holding onto its two remaining timeouts -- allowing 12 seconds to run off the clock before running a play at one point -- and went into halftime still trailing by 13.
The Vols opened the second half with another chance to cut into the lead, but facing third-and-1 at the Alabama 32, Bray faked a handoff to A.J. Johnson and threw incomplete 20 yards downfield. UT was stuffed on fourth down for no gain, and on the ensuing possession Alabama put the game away with a 42-yard TD pass.
Any lingering doubt was erased when, after hitting Hunter for a 44-yard gain to the Tide 18, Bray again threw high and late and was intercepted in the end zone.
From there, the Tide's sixth straight win in the series was a certainty, and the Vols' hope of competing for more than a second-tier bowl game is a long way from reality.
Stephen has covered local sports in the tri-state area for more than 24 years, having been with the Times Free Press since its inception, and has been an assistant sports editor since 2005. Stephen is among the most decorated writers in the TFP’s newsroom, winning numerous state, regional and national writing awards, including seven in 2013 and a combined 12 in the last two years. He was named one of the top 10 sports writers ...