Auburn vs. Tennessee: 10 Things We Learned in Volunteers' Loss
Tennessee is licking its wounds after another drubbing at the hands of an elite SEC foe. This time, No. 9 Auburn left Neyland Stadium with a 55-23 win.
The Vols led 13-6 late in the first quarter and held the Tigers' rush offense to negative yardage in their first two drives. But things quickly took a 180-degree turn when Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall started running free.
Vol fans will rest easy knowing that the gauntlet of their schedule is over with, but losing three straight games and falling to 4-6 undoubtedly will leave a bad taste in the mouths of many.
Here are the 10 biggest takeaways from the Vols' lopsided loss on Saturday.
The Vols' Run Defense Went from Bad to Worse
UT cornerback Cam Sutton sacked Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall on the Tigers' opening drive. The Vols couldn't have started any better on defense.
It also couldn't have been a worse indication of how the game would unfold.
Marshall would end up rushing for two scores in the first half, ripping off big play after big play. He surpassed 200 rushing yards early in the third quarter.
Standout running back Tre Mason had his way on the outside, scoring twice and gashing the Vols with little effort involved. Mason and Marshall combined for more than 300 rushing yards.
Marshall's 38-yard touchdown late in the first half—going untouched as the entire defense bit on his read-option fake—was indicative of just about every offensive play Auburn had from late in the first quarter on.
This epic mismatch was the story of the game going in, and it took little time for people to find out why.
It's Not a Good Thing When Your Kicker Is Team MVP
Once again, kicker Michael Palardy had himself an impressive game in what has been a resurgent season for the senior.
But it's probably not a promising indication of your team's ability to win when your kicker is making a good chunk of the team's big plays.
Palardy hit three field goals, punted five times for 233 yards (46.6 per punt) and downed three of them inside the 20.
He even made a special teams tackle that saved a would-be first-quarter Auburn touchdown on a kickoff.
Palardy was Mr. Everything for the Vols on Saturday. Too bad he can't play linebacker.
Something Is Dreadfully Wrong with Special Teams
Palardy saved a touchdown in the first quarter with a tackle on a kickoff. But he couldn't save the Vols every time.
Auburn enjoyed unprecedented success in punt and kick return. It took five kicks for 185 yards, averaging 37 yards per return. One was returned for a touchdown.
Even more could be said of the punt return. Chris Davis returned two punts—one for an 85-yard touchdown. The other? A measly 42 yards. Ho, hum.
I saw at least one block in the back call that was missed, but that doesn't give Tennessee fans any excuse for avoiding the obvious—something is very, very wrong with the Vols' special teams game.
UT's glaring lack of containment and speed has never been more evident than on Auburn's return duties on Saturday.
Rajion Neal Is an NFL-Caliber Running Back
The silver linings were few and far between for the Vols on Saturday, but Rajion Neal's emergence in yet another big game could not be ignored.
Neal rushed 20 times for 124 yards, showing a constant ability to move the chains even as the Vols offense started sputtering.
The senior also recorded quite possibly the most impressive run of his career. With the score tied 6-6, Neal got out of a one-yard loss, broke four tackles and high-stepped his way into a 17-yard touchdown.
Marlin Lane's ability to efficiently split carries in the backfield helped Neal to stay fresh. Lane had 12 carries for 53 yards. Just as well, Dobbs added 50 on the ground.
Josh Dobbs' Wheels Give UT's Spread a New Dimension
Josh Dobbs may not be experienced enough to keep his outmatched Vols close against an elite foe, but he's showing plenty of promise as the starting quarterback.
The newly implemented spread offense at UT almost certainly doesn't reach its potential without a mobile quarterback, and Tennessee now has that in Dobbs.
The true freshman had his struggles through the air—throwing one pick and no touchdowns—but carried the ball 10 times for 50 yards.
On a 32-yard scamper in the first half, his speed revealed itself more so than ever as he found the edge against Auburn's defensive backs and nearly broke it off for a touchdown.
This offense will take time to get to the pinnacle, but Dobbs showed a lot of poise in tucking and running the ball on Saturday.
The Gauntlet of UT's Schedule Has Taken Its Toll
In early October against Georgia, Tennessee did something it couldn't do for the entire Derek Dooley era—play better in the second half against top competition.
They did so again versus South Carolina, and it ended up with the Vols snapping a 19-game skid against ranked opponents.
However, in each of UT's past three appearances, the Vols have been worn down and soundly blown out, looking far slower than their opponents and playing from behind seemingly all game.
You can't blame a team for wilting a little bit after playing Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, Missouri and Auburn in consecutive weeks. That doesn't mean it's any less painful to watch for Tennessee faithful.
Tennessee's Defense Cannot Contain Mobile QBs
This has been repeated ad nauseam by both myself and anyone who regularly spectates the Vols. But it cannot be ignored.
The Tennessee defense has looked lost against mobile quarterbacks like Oregon's Marcus Mariota, Florida's Tyler Murphy, Missouri's Maty Mauk and even Georgia's Aaron Murray.
But it never looked worse than on Saturday.
Marshall galloped for 214 yards on the ground, as a quarterback. He nearly ran for 20 yards per carry, and that includes an early sack against his average.
It almost looked like a video game with the way Marshall outran UT's defensive backs and linebackers.
The Vols' Run Game Bounced Back Admirably
Even in its worst performances, Tennessee has found a way to run the ball. That wasn't the case last week against Missouri.
The Vols totaled just 94 rushing yards against Mizzou but bounced back to put up an impressive 226 yards on the ground against the Tigers Saturday.
Neal notched his usual effectiveness with 124 yards on 20 carries, while Dobbs' wheels added 50 more and Marlin Lane put up 53 yards on 12 carries.
It wasn't nearly enough to threaten the Tigers and make the game interesting in the second half, but UT fans should be encouraged with the way the run game emerged despite the 32-point loss.
UT's 'Signature Win' Won't Be Repeated in 2013
After beating then-No. 11 South Carolina and facing three straight elite tests, hopes were high for the Vols to reproduce their magic and find a way to knock off another Top 15 foe.
They didn't come close.
After losing to Alabama, Missouri and Auburn by a combined 95 points, the Vols head into a bye week licking their wounds and hoping for a bowl game appearance by winning out against Vanderbilt and Kentucky to finish the season—two games that won't go nearly as far to make a statement as the win over the Gamecocks produced.
It's hard to ask for much more from Butch Jones and Co. given the uphill battle they faced heading into 2013. The South Carolina win was arguably above and beyond the expectations for this season.
But there won't be a repeat performance, at least until 2014.
The Vols Must Win out to Become Bowl-Eligible
It was far from unexpected heading into Saturday—and heading into 2013, really. It's also a reality that any diehard UT fan realized about halfway through the third quarter.
The Vols must win out at home against Vanderbilt and on the road against Kentucky to make a bowl game for the first time since 2010.
A season-long goal for Tennessee became an outspoken motivational ploy after a few lopsided losses as of late—making it to a bowl.
In order to do so, the Vols will have to top a rolling Vandy squad that is coming off a road win at Florida—the same place where UT was toppled earlier in the season.
A win over Kentucky seems much more realistic—if not guaranteed—but 2011 showed that anything can happen when the Wildcats and Vols take the field, especially if it's in Lexington.
Given the hardships, successes and failures UT has endured this season, most Vols fans should be happy if the team rebounds from this gauntlet to win six games and make a bowl.