UT abandons strengths, fails

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- What was Derek Dooley thinking? The Tennessee coach had to know how this was going to play out.

Dooley ran an end-around against Alabama, for goodness sakes. That makes about as much sense as attacking a porterhouse steak with a spork. You can't finesse red meat. You take a knife to it and hope for the best.

Dooley had the right idea trying to get the ball to Tennessee's best players in Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson. But take a look at the other guys. The tight end was open. A wheel route worked well. Where did those plays go? You've got to take the crumbs when they've already eaten the cake.

Tennessee has the tools to challenge the Alabama defense. The quarterback is talented, the receivers among the best in the country. The offensive line is one of the best the Tide will face all season. Dooley has the ingredients he needs to at least challenge his mentor, Nick Saban.

Instead, Dooley performed like the stool he coached from on Saturday night -- rigid and lacking a backbone.

If Tennessee was out to make No. 1 Alabama look vulnerable, boy did it fail.

Sure, there were big plays from the offense. Deion Belue looked like someone quarterbacks might target in the future. Even Dee Milliner looked somewhat susceptible. There were a few times where the defense just got beat.

But what did Tennessee do? It got too cute for its own good. It didn't learn the lesson that must be understood by Dan Mullen, Les Miles and the rest of the coaches yet to face Alabama: There's one way to beat the Tide, and it's by doing what you do best over and over and over again. Don't get cute, because there's no being clever against a team with a one-track mind.

The last team to beat Alabama, LSU, was a team that knew its strengths and weaknesses. It knew not to get fancy against the Alabama defense. Miles played physical football for four quarters and came out on top. It was strength against strength.

Tennessee tried to employ a dose of rocket science rather than play to its strengths, and Alabama is coached too well for that to work. Like the end-around, it's going to go nowhere. Overthinking things won't beat this season's team -- which doesn't stray from its assignments, doesn't wander from its gaps and won't be shaken from its game plan.

The Vols tried to get cute against defense that barely breaks a smile after winning games by margins that would make the Old Ball Coach blush. Tennessee went bunch formation, spread formation and everything in between. They went to the running game -- and just when it got effective, abandoned it to take shots down the field. Marlin Lane carried the ball on consecutive plays twice all night. They even tried lining Patterson up in the I-formation. He fumbled the ball and went nowhere.

Maybe Dooley could have used the mile-up view from the coaches box. Maybe then he could have seen what he was doing wasn't working. Instead, he shuffled on the sidelines without a sense of direction.

The defense wouldn't blitz. The coverage schemes were either so simple Amari Cooper and Co. ran around them, or so complicated the secondary couldn't execute them. Half the time AJ McCarron caught more resistance from a breeze than anyone wearing orange and white.

Granted, not all the blame can be laid at Dooley's feet. Tyler Bray wasn't exactly tossing Coke bottles around the yard. Two picks and a pair of turnovers on downs led to four UA touchdowns.

What really was the Vols defense to do? Alabama ran nine more plays than Tennessee and held the ball 13 minutes longer.

"That's what happens," a downtrodden Dooley said of Alabama after the game. "They break the line, and they do that to everybody. We just joined the ranks of the rest of the country."

For Mississippi State, LSU and Texas A&M, the question is simple: Can they look at what teams have done successfully against Alabama and try to emulate it? Or will each play its own game? Will they do as Saban does and refuse to be shaken from what has worked so well before?

As the saying goes: Dance with the one that brought you, otherwise you're bound to go home empty-handed.