KNOXVILLE - Spotting any team a 27-point lead is never a good idea.
Letting the fourth-ranked team in the country run out to such a wide margin might be an even worse one.
Though Tennessee turned what looked like an ugly blowout into a game in the third quarter Saturday night, the Volunteers were unable to overcome Alabama jumping out to a 27-0 lead in the game's first 18 minutes and fell to the Crimson Tide for an eighth consecutive year in a 34-20 loss at sold-out Neyland Stadium.
"We didn't let that faze us," Tennessee tailback Jalen Hurd said of Alabama's blazing start. "We pulled it together. We knew what we needed to do, and we went out there and we did it. Unfortunately, it didn't work out the way we wanted it to, but we're going to fix our few mistakes."
Tennessee's struggling offense got a spark from quarterback Josh Dobbs, who replaced starter Nathan Peterman after two series as the Vols (3-5, 0-4 SEC) played without starting quarterback Justin Worley. He had left last week's loss at Ole Miss early with a shoulder injury.
Alabama's offense, though, led by coordinator and vilified former Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin, powered the Tide.
Tennessee entered the game with the SEC's best third-down defense, but Alabama converted 11 first downs from 15 third downs. The Tide (7-1, 4-1) converted twice with passes from quarterback Blake Sims to Amari Cooper on their second touchdown drive after Cooper scored an 80-yard touchdown on the game's first play, and their third and fourth touchdowns came on third-down plays.
After Tennessee cut the lead to 27-17 midway through the third quarter, Alabama converted four times on third down, including one when Sims ran and dived for one, ate up nearly six minutes and punctuated the drive with Derrick Henry's 28-yard touchdown run that essentially drove the dagger into the upset-hopeful Vols.
"We lost our identity," said Vols linebacker Curt Maggitt. "We didn't play to our capability, our level. Third down is where we're known for getting off the field, and that's what we let the team down at, and that's what I told the guys. We've got to be critical on ourselves and correct those, correct that."
If Kiffin was the focus before the game, it didn't take long for Cooper to assume the spotlight.
The superstar junior finished with an Alabama-record 244 yards on nine catches and touchdowns of 80 and 41 yards, and he's caught five touchdowns in three games against Tennessee.
"He's a great receiver," Tennessee cornerback Cam Sutton said. "He does it all for them. Their offense works around him. They find the matchups around the field, whether he's inside and outside, and he does a lot of damage after the catch as well.
"It makes him a great receiver, when he gets the ball and can do exceptional things after the catch."
Alabama had 250 yards of offense in the first quarter, but the Tide had just 219 the final three frames.
"When you play a talented football team like Alabama," Vols coach Butch Jones said, "every mistake you make is magnified because of their elite athletes."
In his first action since finishing the 2013 season, Dobbs accounted for 267 yards, including 75 on the ground, and threw touchdown passes to Josh Malone and Von Pearson.
The Vols tested Worley on Friday and knew then he couldn't go, and Jones alluded throughout the week that Tennessee would play both Peterman and Dobbs if Worley couldn't play.
"We tried to get Justin ready, but he wasn't anywhere ready," Jones said. "We had a couple of game plans in place. I thought our offensive staff did a very good job in terms of the game-planning and the preparation, and I thought our kids played exceptionally hard."
Dobbs said offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian told him to be ready "early in the game," and Jones credited the sophomore for his poise and for "providing a spark" to an offense that failed to score a touchdown in its last two SEC games.
"I felt like I played well," Dobbs said. "Of course there's always room for improvement. I know we had two turnovers tonight, so we've got to eliminate that. The first maxim is, 'The team that makes the fewest mistakes will win,' so we've got to do a good job of eliminating those turnovers.
"But there's a lot of positives we can take from the game."
He fumbled on his third series, which Alabama turned into a touchdown, and threw a late interception, but Tennessee finished with 383 yards, well above the season average of 262 yards per game Alabama's defense was allowing.
The Vols also surpassed their season average of 94 rushing yards with an 181-yard night against the nation's second-best run defense, which hadn't let a team run for more than 107 yards in any game this season.
"Josh, he's a versatile quarterback, and that's really good in this offense," Hurd said. "He did a great job tonight, just going out there and leading the team like that. He did awesome."
Jones was proud of how his team responded to falling behind, and Tennessee will need similar grit needing three wins in its final four games to reach bowl eligibility.
"They responded the way I would anticipate that they would respond," he said. "Resilient, tough-minded and keep playing. They've done that all year."
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