Trending Up: Winning Games. First things first: this was a win. Independent of the weird quality of the win (which we'll get to later, since everyone else has skipped ahead to that point anyway), we had counted South Alabama as a win. There are going to be a few games where we'll need to be content with the idea of a moral victory, but if there's a bowl game sitting in December (or January, because the bowl schedule is absurd and January bowls don't mean what they did), there needed to be a win yesterday.
Trending Up, We Think: The run game was that explosive; both Raijon Neal and Marlin Lane did a good job of getting most of the yards available to them (and a few additional ones as well). Credit the run blocking both at the line and downfield receivers. Neal and Lane also did a great job of using the blockers they had, most notably on Lane's mazy 54-yard run.
Possibly No Movement: Related: 7.5 yards per carry is a great number. You don't get to 7.5 without solid blocking. With that being said, I'm unsure if either guy is going to be able to fully break a run without excellent downfield blocking. If they weren't going to break away against South Alabama, they're not going to break away against anyone.
Definitely No Movement Until 2014 At Least: I don't quite know why it took me so long to realize this, but this Tennessee squad is not fast at all. That being said, there's very little that can be done about this in 2013 (and there may not be a ton that can be done about this in 2014). Sprint speed is, for the most part, something you can't really control or coach up - guys are fast or they're not. It's not really Butch Jones' fault that there isn't much team speed - blame the failed Lane Kiffin class and the paucity of high-level talent Dooley snagged - but it will be a weakness until the team gets better. (I don't blame the guys on the team; there isn't much they can do about it either.)
Unable to Get a Point in Edgewise: We've seen this in more stark manner against the best teams on the schedule - think the bad angle against Florida two weeks ago - but South Alabama was able to get to the edge. Not to put too fine a point on it, but that shouldn't happen and it looked like the playcalling was trying to take that into account. They were just vaguely helpless; there was one South Alabama drive where Ross Matheny ended up dropping back, an end dropped to shade 5-7 steps toward the near boundary, and Matheny was still able to get around him.
Trending Not Within Five Yards of a Target When Under Pressure: The lack of speed was useful as an academic exercise; however, it came way closer to actually mattering in the outcome of this game than it should have. That was in part due to changes that the South Alabama staff made, but the Tennessee staff doesn't get off free on this either. While I understand the idea of getting Justin Worley some more passes to build confidence in a relatively low-pressure environment, it probably should've been abandoned sooner than it was. There are a couple big reasons for that: he wasn't effective and - if that was why - he was getting booed off the field. (I think - that's what it sounded like.) That totally backfired.
Trending Down, More or Less: In the end, we're stuck with a lackluster Justin Worley line: 20/36, 5.7 yards per attempt, 2 TD, 3 INT. That isn't good enough for a low-ceiling QB like Worley, whether or not the INT - specifically, the Pig Howard end-zone confusion one - were his fault. (Also, throwing 2 picks in the end zone is a bit abnormal. Reesian, even. They still happened, so I'm not excusing that.) For a guy whose upside is Game Manager,
Hey Look, A Kind-of-Positive About Justin Worley! With that being said: Worley seemed to do a good enough job when presented with enough time to set his feet. There are still some big holes - he can't throw under pressure, any pressure, not even a little bit, even if it's not actual pressure, and he'll still lock in on one receiver - but there is at least one thing he can do. Whether or not that's the bare minimum you'd ask of a QB is open to discussion.
Running with Safety Scissors: Protecting Worley's head and feet falls to Mike Bakajan with things he can do; I don't particularly care how the OL is motivated - talk future paydays for all I care - but they've got to be able to keep the pressure off Worley both in successful runs and pass protection. Somewhat related: wasn't it neat to see Worley actually keep a couple runs? He had a 10-yarder they had to measure where he was just walking in circles grinning like a maniac. That was awesome. That's doubly awesome because having at least the threat of a QB keep makes the OL's job easier; even that split second of hesitation could allow for a guy to get blown off the play.
Trending at Expectations, Believe It or Not: Ultimately, we're pretty close to where we expected at this point - 3-2. Worley's been a bit worse than we hoped for, the defense has been a bit better (Cameron Sutton has been stellar; I'll handle a boom/bust young CB every day, because the busts are more likely to go away than the booms), and Michael Palardy - yeah, that guy - has been a revelation this year. On balance, I think we're slightly better than projected in theory, and there are pieces for this year, next year, and even 2015 that look promising.
Trending Up, We Hope: That being said, the potential we'll reach those heights depends solely on how the staff hides the weaknesses of the players. At this point, it's not likely those weaknesses will change, but success for this season hinges on being healthy enough once October ends and good enough to win three games in November. (Provided there aren't upsets, mind.)