Tennessee players and coaches are saying the right thing after a not-as-close-as-the-score indicates 27-13 loss at Georgia last Saturday.
The Vols lost their No. 1 ranking in the College Football Playoff poll and suffered their first loss of what has been a remarkable season.
Vols coach Josh Heupel said UT players must play better and coaches must coach better in the aftermath of a game in which UT’s potent offense was limited to season lows in points (13) and total yards (289).
Heupel has been encouraged by the energy, effort and intensity during this week’s practices as the fifth-ranked Vols prepare to host Missouri (4-5) at noon in an SEC encounter. UT will celebrate Senior Day and try to secure its first perfect home record since 2007.
Tennessee must avoid the self-inflicted wounds it suffered in Athens. The Vols had seven pre-snap penalties thanks to a vociferous home crowd.
The Vols also didn’t do a good job of handling Georgia’s blitz, providing quarterback Hendon Hooker with hot routes and getting receivers open.
Georgia played a two-deep safety look and kept the Vols from hitting shots downfield.
Did the Dawgs show a blueprint for future Tennessee opponents?
UT offensive coordinator Alex Golesh wasn’t buying it.
“In terms of a blueprint, I think they have really good players,’’ Golesh said. “I think there’s a lot of teams in this league that have really good players. We’ve played (against) really good players. They played better than us on Saturday.
“The environment was, at times, not handled well by us – both players and coaches. That’s on the coaches in terms of not being ready in that aspect.’’
Golesh said pre-snap penalties and execution were UT’s biggest problems.
Did Georgia defend Tennessee differently than other opponents?
“If the question is: `Did they out-scheme us and did we have no idea what was going on?’ Absolutely not,’’ Golesh said.
“They had a really good scheme. They played really well. We have a really good scheme. We did not play well. Schematically, we were sound.
“So, blueprint, yes, the blueprint for those guys, really good players, really good coaches. Awesome. We have really good players, really good coaches.
“On that day, in that 60 minutes, they were better than us. We screwed up a bunch with pre-snap penalties.’’
A key against Missouri will be to not screw up with pre-snap penalties, which should be easily managed with a home game.
As Golesh pointed out, those pre-snap infractions took the Vols from third-and-2 to third-and-7 to third-and-12 on one possession. And constantly put UT behind the chains.
The Vols were only 2 of 14 on third downs in part because 11 of those third-down attempts were of 5 or more yards and five were of 10 or more yards. You won’t convert many of those against a defense as talented as Georgia.
Tennessee’s offense shredded two of the top defenses in the SEC: Alabama (52-49) and Kentucky (44-6).
Will UT’s offense bounce back against the most improved defense in the SEC?
Last year, Tennessee’s offense ran through Missouri like butter on a hot roll. The Vols led 28-3 after the first quarter and 45-10 at halftime. UT ran for 458 yards. Three Vols ran for at least 76 yards and six ran for at least 38 yards.
The game was so lop-sided UT implemented its four-minute offense the entire second half, content to run out the clock rather than run up the score.
Missouri’s defense has made an about face. The Tigers hired a new defensive coordinator, Blake Baker, brought in several impact transfers, a new attitude and a new philosophy.
As Missouri coach Eli Drinkwitz said this week, the Tigers will have a “different scheme than the one we trotted out there in the first quarter’’ against the Vols.
Last year, Missouri ranked last in the SEC in run defense (227.4 yards per game), and 13th in scoring defense (33.8 points) and total defense (434.2).
This year, Missouri has gone from 109 in the nation in total defense to 13. It ranks fourth in the SEC in scoring defense (21.4), run defense (111.2), pass defense (192.4) and total defense (303.7). It has not allowed an SEC team to score more than 26 points.
And it led No. 1 Georgia by 10 points in the fourth quarter before falling 26-22.
Drinkwitz was asked if he’s talked to his team about the Missouri Massacre at the hands of Tennessee last year or did he flush it like it didn’t happen?
“It definitely happened,’’ Drinkwitz said. “It’s definitely something, as a coach, you always remember being embarrassed like that. But we’ve not discussed it this week or this year.’’
Drinkwitz said the results of last year’s whipping has no bearing on this year’s game, saying the Vols can’t carry over any points and Missouri can’t carry over any turnovers.
But it could have an emotional bearing for Missouri.
As Drinkwitz said: “We’re aware of what they did to us last year.’’