ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
Tennessee running back Jalen Hurd attempts to elude South Carolina linebacker T.J. Holloman during the first half of Saturday night's game in Columbia, S.C. The Vols, who lost 24-21, fell out of the AP and coaches' Top 25 polls released Sunday.

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Tennessee's football team left Williams-Brice Stadium following a 24-21 upset loss to South Carolina on Saturday night with a lengthy list of questions.

Some have short-term answers, while others may not be addressed until after the season.

The performance, coming off an open date with the SEC East title at stake, was inexplicable. The defeat, arguably the worst in Butch Jones' tenure as coach of the Volunteers, was inexcusable, and tough questions are sure to follow.

"We pride ourselves," Jones said after the game, "on playing with great passion and energy and being a disciplined team that takes care of the ball and doesn't create penalties for themselves. We weren't that. I thought we were lethargic and lacked energy on the sideline and, at times, seemed disinterested.

"It starts with me. We talked about it all week long. Again, we have to own it. Where do we go from here? It's a long, long football season, and you can't let one football game define you, but we're going to find out the competitive make-up of us in how we bounce back."

It's alarming when a head coach says his team showed clear disinterest, and it's especially peculiar for a team whose goals for the season were very much in reach. Three weeks ago Tennessee showed admirable resiliency and relentlessness while nearly beating a top-10 team on the road despite overcoming an onslaught of turnovers.

Those positive traits have been absent in the two games since.

When a player bluntly admits the team no-showed and can't offer an explanation why, as Vols defensive tackle Kendal Vickers did, there's a serious problem that hints of growing disharmony.

What's also alarming is how mistake-prone the Vols have been all season, particularly with penalties and turnovers, two areas that reflect almost directly on coaching.

Tennessee is 12th in the Southeastern Conference in penalty yards per game (56.9). The Vols were the least-penalized team in the conference in Jones's first two seasons before dropping to fourth last season. With 50 penalties for 455 yards through eight games, the Vols are on track to surpass their season highs during Jones' tenure.

The Vols are minus-5 in turnover margin, 13th in the SEC, and their 20 giveaways are tied with Kentucky and Purdue for fourth-most in the country, behind only Duke, Bowling Green and Kansas, who have a combined 5-19 record.

Tennessee lost only 12 turnovers during the entire 2015 season.

The problems in those two areas started long before Saturday night, as have the struggles of Tennessee's offense under the guidance of coordinator Mike DeBord.

There are any number of statistics to prove the regression of an offense that boasts experience and talent, though it's pretty clear by the eye test.

After averaging 223.7 rushing yards per game in 2015, Tennessee is averaging 165.4 yards this season. The Vols are 55 spots worse nationally (20th to 75th) in rushing, and there's been a similar drop (21st to 77th) in third-down conversions. Tennessee has lost its identity on offense, and criticisms of the scheme and lack of creativity on offense are entirely valid.

With four winnable games remaining, Tennessee (5-3, 2-3 SEC) conceivably could finish with 10 victories this season, and the fact that Florida (6-1, 4-1) has conference games at Arkansas and LSU offers a sliver of hope in the SEC East race.

At this point, though, the path the Vols would have taken to get there would be uninspiring, and there are more troubling problems to worry about following a lackadaisical showing and the embarrassing defeat it produced.

"I think it's more just everyone taking the responsibility on themselves of playing their best football, from the coaching staff to everyone involved, everyone in our organization," Jones said. "It starts with me. I'll sit up here and I'll tell you I'm responsible for everything. I'm responsible for the organization, the coaches, the players, all that.

"But everyone has to take ownership in it. We've got to own it. We've got to own it. We have to work to improve. There's a lot of football left to be played. Mark my words, as I sit here today in South Carolina, there's a lot of football left to be played."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT