As poorly as Tennessee played for most of Saturday's game at Mississippi State, the Vols still had a chance to win with 3:30 remaining, trailing just 34-31. With the Bulldogs facing third and seven at their 39-yard line, Tennessee merely needed one stop to force a punt that would give the Vol offense the ball with around 3:00 left ... plenty of time to get a go-ahead touchdown or a tying field goal.
Tennessee's defense didn't get a stop on that play, however. It didn't get a stop the rest of the game, in fact, as Mississippi State went on to cap a 12-play, five-minute drive with a nine-yard touchdown pass that produced a 41-31 final score.
Basically, Tennessee's defense made Tyler Russell look like Matt Barkley, made LaDarius Perkins look like Marcus Lattimore and made Mississippi State's tight ends and wide receivers look way more explosive than they are. I knew the switch to a 3-4 scheme would involve some growing pains but I never dreamed the discomfort would be this severe.
Where the game was lost
Down 27-24 late in the third quarter, Tennessee squandered three opportunities to take the lead. The first possession was a four-and-out. The second was a three-and-out. The third lasted just two plays, ending when Devrin Young lost a fumble at the Vol 30-yard line. Had the Vol defense limited the Bulldogs to a field goal at this point, it still would've been a one-possession game. Instead, the defense gave up a three-play touchdown drive that bumped the lead to 34-24 with 7:58 remaining. Both Tennessee's offense and Tennessee's defense failed in the clutch, digging a hole the Vols would not prove capable of escaping.
The big picture
If you can't beat No. 19 Mississippi State, the odds of beating No. 1 Alabama (Oct. 20) or a homestanding South Carolina team (Oct. 27) that was ranked No. 3 prior to Saturday's 23-21 loss at LSU appear pretty remote.
Probably the best the Vols can hope for is to lose competitively against the Tide and Gamecocks, then sweep November games against Troy, Missouri, Vanderbilt and Kentucky. That would produce a 7-5 overall record, a 3-5 SEC mark and a third-tier bowl bid.
Players of the game
Granted, his 98-yard kickoff return was a special-teams play rather than an offensive play, but I'm still giving him the nod. He also caught two passes for 25 yards and rushed three times for 57 yards, including the game's longest scrimmage run (34 yards). He was one step from perhaps breaking another kickoff return for a TD on the game's final play. Runnerup is the entire offensive line. Tennessee amassed 213 rushing yards and averaged 6.3 per carry Saturday night, and a lot of the credit goes to the big uglies upfront.
The sophomore linebacker was credited with 4 solos, 17 assists and 21 total stops on Saturday night. Frankly, I don't remember Tennessee defenders making 21 stops as a team. Johnson's stat line included 1.5 tackles for loss. A close runnerup was Jack linebacker Jacques Smith, who recorded 1 solo, 4 assists, 1.5 tackles for loss, a sack and 4 hurries.
The top-ranked Tide moved to 6-0 overall, 3-0 in SEC play, and looked awesome in mauling Missouri 42-10 Saturday in Columbia. Eddie Lacy averaged 9.8 yards per carry en route to 177 rushing yards and backup T.J. Yeldon averaged 8.0 per carry en route to 144. Quarterback A.J. McCarron was typically solid, completing 16 of 21 passes for 171 yards.
Meanwhile, Bama's defense allowed just 3 net rushing yards and 129 total yards. It also limited Mizzou to two third-down conversions in 15 tries.