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Why has Tennessee struggled so mightily thus far? Here are 5 reasons

Tennessee coach Butch Jones
Randy Sartin/USA TODAY Sports

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Numerous observers predicted Tennessee would start 3-2. But no one thought the Vols would struggle to score against a bad UMass team, suffer the worst home loss since 1905 or look like a team headed for a 6-6 season.

After back-to-back nine-win seasons, how did the program — in year five under Butch Jones — get to this point?

Here are five reasons.

1. NFL early draft entries

Tennessee’s program isn’t good enough to withstand losing three players early to the NFL draft.
Alabama has been able to do it. So has Georgia, Florida and LSU. But not Tennessee.

Jones has built a roster much superior to what he inherited, but the Vols lost all-time sacks leader Derek Barnett, receiver Josh Malone (11 touchdown receptions last season) and running back Alvin Kamara early to the NFL.

Tennessee’s leader in sacks at defensive end has one. The Vols don’t have a receiver with more than 20 catches or three touchdowns. John Kelly is a terrific running back, but he has little help. The No. 2 rusher has 74 yards.

2. Lack of difference-makers

I’ve always believed that to be an elite team or to compete at a high level in the SEC, you must have players who can change a game. Tennessee has one: Kelly.

That’s it.

The Vols don’t have a quarterback, like Josh Dobbs, who can make a difference. Or a receiver. Or a defensive end. Or a linebacker. Or a lock-down corner.

Jauan Jennings might have been that difference-maker at receiver, but he suffered a season-ending wrist injury in the opener.

Darrin Kirkland Jr. might have been that linebacker, but he suffered a season-ending knee injury in August.

Tennessee has a number of good players, but only one difference-maker. And you can’t win in the SEC without them.

3. Lack of first-down production

In its past two games, Tennessee has been terrible on first downs.

Against Georgia, Tennessee had 11 first-down plays that gained 2 or fewer yards. That resulted in eight third-and-5-or-longer snaps. UT was 1-of-12 on third down against Georgia.
Against a UMass team that is 0-6 and surrendered 58 points to Ohio, Tennessee had 20 first-down plays that gained 2 or fewer yards in a lackluster 17-13 win. The Vols were 2-of-8 on third downs in the second half against the Minutemen.

RELATED: It’s obvious that the end to Butch Jones era is inevitable

You can point to several factors: a weak offensive line, suspect play-calling, poor quarterback play. But whatever it is, UT hasn’t done well on first down lately. And that’s one reason Tennessee has scored only 14 first-quarter points this season.

4. Tennessee is running an offense that doesn’t suit its quarterback

Quinten Dormady is not a zone-read quarterback. He is not a good runner or a willing runner on zone-read plays.

I’m a firm believer that in the zone-read scheme, your quarterback must be an effective runner. Auburn and Oregon, in certain years past, are examples of offenses that struggled because of ineffective running quarterbacks.

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