Identifying Tennessee's problem is simple: Its defense gives up too many points. Solving the problem has been more complicated.
The Volunteers have allowed 31.5 points per game, the highest average since the 1893 team gave up 42.7 in a six-game season. Tennessee's struggles this season continued Saturday with a 41-31 loss at No. 19 Mississippi State — which racked up 450 yards on offense.
Next up is No. 1 Alabama, which has scored at least 33 points in each of its first six games.
"We're not very good right now," Tennessee coach Derek Dooley said in regard to his defense. "You are what your film is. We don't get off blocks the way we need to up front. We don't get enough hats to the football."
Tennessee (3-3, 0-3 SEC) has given up 429.8 total yards per game. The Vols haven't given up that many yards per game over the course of an entire season since at least 1950, the earliest year for which the Tennessee media guide includes annual totals for yards allowed. The highest average Tennessee has allowed during that stretch came in 1982, when it gave up 415.7 yards per game.
Even when Tennessee's defense improves in one area, it backslides in other respects.
The Vols' biggest weakness on defense had been its penchant for allowing big plays. The Vols headed into Mississippi State having allowed six touchdowns of 50 yards or greater over their last three games. Five of those touchdowns had gone at least 70 yards.
Mississippi State didn't have any gains longer than 29 yards Saturday, yet the Bulldogs still scored on their first five possessions and sealed the victory by reaching the end zone on their last two drives. Mississippi State owned a 27-14 lead at the intermission to achieve its highest first-half point total in an SEC game since 1994. Mississippi State's Tyler Russell established career highs in completions (23) and passing yards (291).
Tennessee couldn't handle the Bulldogs despite getting 21 tackles from sophomore linebacker A.J. Johnson, who became the first Vol to collect at least 20 tackles in a game since Tom Fisher made 21 stops against Auburn on Sept. 26, 1964.
"We just bled to death," Dooley said.
The Vols continue to hemorrhage against ranked teams and conference foes.
Tennessee is 14-17 overall, 4-15 in SEC games and 0-13 against Top 25 opponents since Dooley took over the program in 2010. The Vols have lost 10 of their last 11 SEC games. Dooley's first two years at Tennessee resulted in the Vols' first consecutive losing seasons since 1909-11, when the Vols had three straight losing years.