KNOXVILLE — It was a tough afternoon in Alabama last Saturday for Tennessee's defense.
The Volunteers are hoping to avoid a similar feeling in chilly Missouri on Saturday night.
A defense that's taken strides this year never got comfortable against the top-ranked Crimson Tide, who rolled up 45 points and 479 yards of offense against the Vols. Only Oregon, which gashed the Vols for 687 yards in a 59-14 rout in September, gained more yards on Tennessee this season.
"I think it's just a culmination of things," defensive coordinator John Jancek said. "No. 1, Alabama's a really good opponent. The things that maybe you get away with against certain teams -- maybe fundamentally you're cheating on some things -- against Alabama you just don't have that margin. That's really what showed itself in that ballgame.
"I thought our style of play was lacking. I thought we were hesitant at times. We didn't play to the level that we had been playing to, and we took a little step backward, but we're going to progress and we're going to keep moving forward."
With quarterback AJ McCarron, tailbacks T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake and its underrated receiving corps, Alabama did whatever it wanted against Tennessee and flexed its muscle offensively. The talent gap between the two teams was most evident when Alabama had the ball.
The Tide's first four possessions ended in touchdown drives of 51, 66, 66 and 81 yards, and they added a 98-yard drive in the second half.
"We just look at the mistakes and then carry on," Vols defensive tackle Daniel Hood said. "There were so many mistakes in that game that it didn't give a good representation of our team. We just look at why we weren't ready to play. Why didn't we have the right energy? Why weren't we in our gaps at the right times?"
Those questions have been addressed in practice this week, and they'll need to have answers by the time Saturday night's game at 10th-ranked Missouri kicks off.
The Tigers rank second in the SEC behind only Texas A&M in scoring offense at 41.8 points per game and third behind the Aggies and Auburn with 499.8 yards per game. With redshirt freshman Maty Mauk filling in for the injured James Franklin at quarterback the past two weeks, Missouri rolled up 404 yards against South Carolina and 500 against Florida.
Missouri plays an up-tempo spread style that again will test how Tennessee plays in space and on the perimeter, where the Vols have struggled for a long time.
"The game of football is all about space," Jancek said. "You see these offenses, they're throwing bubble screens, they're throwing smoke screens and getting the ball out in space and forcing you to make plays. Unfortunately we've been a victim of a couple of those this year.
"That's something that we've got to continue to work on and address each and every week."
On Alabama's opening series last week, McCarron threw a simple flare pass to receiver Amari Cooper, whose speed forced Tennessee nickelback JaRon Toney to take a bad tackling angle, though cornerback Justin Coleman did his job by setting the edge. Once he got past Toney, Cooper was gone for a 54-yard touchdown.
It was nearly an identical play to Solomon Patton's long touchdown for Florida in the September game against the Vols.
"Everybody we play will have guys that can do that," Jancek said, "and that's just what we've got to do a good job of not breaking down and getting on the right angles and just getting the guy down."
Said Hood: "I expect [Missouri] to throw the ball all over the place and to run it. They're a quick team. They have great backs and a good offensive line that will hold us and throw us to the ground."
In trying to pick up the pieces after last week, Tennessee's defenders have acknowledged they played perhaps the nation's most elite team, but they were disappointed in how they played, particularly in the first half.
Jancek has been pleased at how his group has focused on bouncing back this week in practice.
"[Alabama's] a great football team. We said that going in," he said. "They're the most complete offense that we've played up to this point, from the offensive line to the wideouts to the quarterback. We knew that there was going to be very little margin for error, but we didn't play our style, and that was disappointing.
"That's where we've got to get better. We can control that. We've talked about that. We've put some things in place to try and improve, and I'm excited to go out and get that one off our chest and move on."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...