During Saturday’s Tennessee-Alabama football game, the CBS telecast came out of a commercial break with an overhead view looking down into a mostly empty Neyland Stadium.
The sparse turnout was directly attributable to the COVID-19 pandemic. But I also wondered if the scene would’ve looked the same under normal circumstances.
It was early in the third quarter but the Crimson Tide already was ahead by 25 points. Moments earlier, freshman Malachi Moore tore the football from the hands of Vols running back Eric Gray, scooped up the fumble and ran 28 yards for a touchdown. Frankly, the play, like much of the game, looked too easy for Alabama. Therefore, it would’ve been just as easy for a fan to leave at that point.
The TD was the fourth scored by an opposing defense in the past 10 quarters against Tennessee. The Vols offense has countered with three touchdowns during that span.
The stunning statistic is adding up just like the losses. The 48-17 loss to Alabama before a crowd of 23,394 at the beginning at least wasn’t as close as the score indicated. The Crimson Tide lost star receiver Jaylen Waddle on the opening kickoff to a season-ending ankle injury and proceeded as if nothing had happened, winning for the 14th consecutive time in the series.
Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt spoke to the fans with one of his more pointed postgame comments.
“Nobody is more disappointed than the people within our program, I can assure you,” he said. “It’s the reason that I wanted the job. I understood the passion, the energy and the expectations of Tennessee football. When I took the job, I knew exactly where it was at, which is why I wanted the job. I wanted this job because I wanted to get it to where it’s supposed to be. It’s a heckuva challenge. I’m excited about being here. I’m not discouraged. The people in our program aren’t discouraged. I know where our program is headed and we’ll get there.”
Defensive lineman Matthew Butler, meanwhile, spoke to the reality of the situation as it pertained to UT and Alabama.
“Alabama has a winning culture,” he said. “We have a winning history.”
He indicated that the chasm between the two is best bridged by execution. Probably more to it than that. But it’s an interesting thought. Here’s a couple other thoughts:
-Saturday’s loss was the 12th by at least 21 points under Pruitt’s watch. In eight games against Alabama, Florida and Georgia, his teams have never come within 22 points. The average margin of defeat has been more than 28 points.
Still think last Saturday’s 34-7 rout at the hands of Kentucky is more relevant than any loss to a conference heavyweight. UT can’t move up if it can’t handle where it’s at right now.
-Not sure anyone wants to read this, but the pandemic has hurt this program to some degree. At this juncture, the Vols needed a spring practice and a good offseason program.
Pruitt said on Saturday that the team has been COVID free for five weeks now. And they have an off week before the next game. Therefore, you won’t be reading anymore about a lost offseason in this space.
-Whoever is next in line at quarterback should’ve gotten more snaps at quarterback. Is it Brian Maurer? He was the only backup who played. The importance of practice notwithstanding, game experience is vital too.
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Dan Fleser is a 1980 graduate of the University of Missouri, who covered University of Tennessee athletics from 1988-2019. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.