At this point in the season, it's clear that Tennessee isn't going to be competing for an SEC Championship. With losses to UF and UGA in the east as well as LSU and Alabama from the west, the Vols find themselves sitting at 0-4 in the SEC right now. This stretch of games has shown that Tennessee is still not quite there yet to compete with the other contenders in the league. It boils down to wins and losses, and depth/talent has a lot to do with that.
Just how far off is Tennessee from competing with the other "marquee" programs in the division? I don't think that they are as far off as some think. I decided to take a look at how the Vols fared when compared with the Gators against like opponents. Both Tennessee and Florida played LSU and Alabama back to back, home and away.
Offense vs LSU
Against the Tigers, Tennessee gained 239 yards of total offense to UF's 213. The Vols had 128 yards passing and 111 rushing to the Gators' 100 yards through the air and 113 on the ground. Both teams had two turnovers via interception, neither team had their starting quarterback and Tennessee is without star receiver Justin Hunter. Tennessee lost 38-7 whereas Florida was beaten 41-11. The Volunteers gained 11 first downs to the Florida's 9. Tennesee was better on 3rd down (4-10 to 2-11) and had a higher gain per play with 4.9 yards to 4.4.
Defense vs LSU
The Big Orange defense held the Tigers to 383 yards whereas they rolled up 453 yards against the Gator d. The Vols and Gators defenses gave up pretty much the same yardage on the ground 237 and 238 respectively, but the UT secondary held the LSU passing attack to 146 yards on 14 completions, UF'd allowed 215 on 10 completions. LSU was able to move the chains 24 times against Tennessee and 20 against Florida. That can be chalked up to a couple more big plays through the air against Florida. Neither team caused a turnover, and LSU was forced to punt 4 times against Tennessee and 3 against UF. One punt against the Vols came after Tennessee blocked a fieldgoal that didn't count thanks to a delay of game penalty on LSU. They backed up 5 yards and punted.
Against the Tigers, Tennessee gets the slight edge in pretty much every category other than the final score. Florida scored 4 more points, but with more speed and only one major injury. Tennessee's defense performed better and the offense moved the ball more consistently on the Tiger defense.
Now for the Crimson Tide
Offense vs Alabama
From the get go, UF had an edge here as they had all of their starters healthy for at least the majority of the game. Quarterback John Brantley went down at the end of the 1st half, and the Gator offense wasn't the same in the 2nd half. Matt Simms and the Vols offense was only able to muster 6 first downs and 155 yards, Florida racked up 222 yards and 9 first downs. UT was able to roll up 92 yards on the ground against the Tide defense whereas the speedy UF backs were held to a measly 15. Simms was unable to get anything going through the air though. Brantley had a solid first half against Alabama going 11-16 for 190 yards and a touchdown. After he went out though, the passing game totaled 17 yards between 2 different quarterbacks. Both teams turned the ball over twice, and Tennessee punted 5 times to Florida's 7.
Defense vs Alabama
Defensively, the Vols didn't fair as well against UA as they did against LSU. They allowed the Tide 437 yards, Florida held them to 366 yards. Most of Alabama's yards against Tennessee came through the air though as A.J. McCarron went 17-26 for 284 yards and 2 TD's (1 passing and 1 rushing). He through the ball 25 times against Florida and on 12 completions he gained 140 yards. The run defense against Alabama favors Tennessee though. Trent Richardson and company only gained 142 yards on the ground against the men in orange and 226 against UF. Tennessee also caused a turnover (an interception by Austin Johnson). Florida had no such luck. Bama punted 5 times against Florida and twice against Tennessee.
Florida lost 38-10 and Tennessee dropped the road game 37-6. The difference in the scores here is most likely due to the fact that the Gators had their starting quarterback as well as all starting receivers healthy for at least a half, whereas Tennessee was missing Tyler Bray and Justin Hunter for the entire game. I'm not saying that is definitely the difference, but it played a large hand in the inability of the offense to move the ball.
It's no question that Tennessee still has a little ways to go to catch up to the depth and talent of Florida and Georgia in the East, but against like opponents, the Vols are neck and neck in terms of performance with one of their most bitter rivals in the division.
On paper, everyone says UF has more talent, and they may, which tells me that Tennessee's coaching staff is slightly better than Florida's. There will be those who say "Look at who won in the head to head matchup."
Those people are right to an extent, but in all honesty, if Hunter doesn't get hurt on the Vols 4th play from scrimmage, I would almost bet a paycheck on the outcome of that game being different. Especially considering what a less proficient passing attack (LSU) did to the Gator secondary.
Tennessee isn't as far off from competing as most would like to think. This staff can coach, and that is evident in the Vols very much being in the game after the 1st half against the 2 best teams in the nation.
Another recruiting class or two and Tennessee will be more evenly matched, and a healthy starting Vol squad with proper depth looks to have the ability to go 4 quarters with anybody. It's coming.