KNOXVILLE — When Bob Shoop was tabbed as Tennessee's new defensive coordinator this past January, the hire was lauded universally by many college football pundits.
The praise became a distant memory 10 months later as Shoop's defense suffered a startling November collapse.
The Volunteers allowed nearly 2,000 yards in their final three games and ended the regular season by surrendering 45 points to Vanderbilt, the most the Commodores had scored in a Southeastern Conference game in more than 40 years.
"Somehow, some way we found a way to go 3-1 in the month of November," Shoop said after Wednesday's practice. "If the season would have ended at the end of the Tennessee Tech game, you would have said this defense had some injuries and held its own. Those last three games were tough, and I own them.
"Those were on me. We found a way to win two of those last three games, which I'm really very, very proud. You have a sour taste in your mouth after a game like that last game."
Shoop didn't go from being regarded as one of the best defensive minds in college football — all five of his units at Vanderbilt and Penn State finished in the top 25 nationally in total defense — to an incompetent coordinator in such a short span, which leads to the question of what went so wrong at the end of his first season with the Vols.
It's hard to ignore the effect injuries and the dismissal of defensive tackle Danny O'Brien had on Tennessee's defensive line. Starting linebackers Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Darrin Kirkland Jr. didn't even play four full quarters together as both got hurt. The Vols used nine different starting lineups in the secondary.
Yet the drastic disintegration in the final month of the regular season came after Tennessee played well enough on defense to win in its loss at South Carolina, then shut out Tennessee Tech.
"I watched all the games sequentially after the season," Shoop said. "I literally watched every single game. And to watch our style of play from the beginning of the season to the end of the season almost looks like two different teams."
Shoop believes the "cumulative effect" of key injuries forcing reserves into more action than they were prepared to handle, along with the defense collectively losing confidence and momentum — plus wearing down physically — "compounded themselves" into the defensive disaster the Vols became by season's end.
Tennessee hemorrhaged more than 400 rushing yards first against Kentucky and then Missouri before Vanderbilt's Kyle Shurmur passed for more than 400 yards.
"Nobody's going to confuse Kentucky and Missouri for good defense, but we won both those games by multiple scores," Shoop said. "In the Kentucky game, we were up 49-22 or something like that when they gained 200 yards after that, so I kind of put that one on the back burner. The (Missouri) game, I don't know that it was ever really in question, and they ran whatever they ran, 115 snaps. That was just a bizarre sequence of events.
"The Vanderbilt game was sour. That leaves a sour taste in your mouth, there's no question about that."
Tennessee's defense can erase some of the taste before turning its full attention to the future by beating Nebraska in the Music City Bowl on Dec. 30, and Shoop believes the two-week span between the Vanderbilt game and the start of bowl preparation allowed coaches and players to approach this month as a chance for a fresh start.
"We're definitely coming out hungry," safety Micah Abernathy said Tuesday. "We didn't play our best the past couple of weeks, but really it's on us just coming out there and playing defense. It doesn't really matter who our opponent is, we're going to give our all regardless."
Shoop believes this week's practices have been the defense's best in weeks, and he expects a rejuvenated effort as the Vols seek redemption against the Cornhuskers.
"At the end of the year we certainly weren't playing to what I consider to be my or our style of play, and I'm well aware of that," Shoop said. "It's on me. I'm a big believer that your performance in last week's game doesn't have a whole lot to do with your performance in this week's game.
"They seemed to have picked up their confidence, they seem to be excited about practicing, and I know our team's going to go out and give their best effort against Nebraska."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.