As Kiffin closes talent gap, exciting years lie ahead for Vols

John Moorehouse • Oct 25, 2009 at 12:00 AM

Want to know why Tennessee lost to Alabama on Saturday? Look no further than Terrence Cody.

The Crimson Tide’s mammoth defensive tackle is a difference maker, destined to make millions in the NFL. He’s darn good on kick blocks too, as evidenced by his pair on Saturday, though he needs to keep his helmet on after the fact. (More on this later…)

Cody’s the type of player that didn’t show up in Tuscaloosa until Nick Saban’s second season on the job. Some of the other guys in that recruiting class are pretty special, too — like running back Mark Ingram and wide receiver Julio Jones.

It took time for Saban to add players like that to the roster. And that’s the challenge Lane Kiffin faces at Tennessee.

Currently for the Vols, the total team talent isn’t there. This week, Kiffin talked about five-star freshmen on the Crimson Tide squad who can’t play their way off the third team. Tennessee, meanwhile, has so little team depth that it was able to sacrifice a spot on the travel roster so injured linebacker Nick Reveiz could make the trip to Tuscaloosa.

Injuries and departures have left the Vols with a pair of walk-ons on the interior of their offensive line. Identical twins who walk-on at UT and end up starting side by side makes for a great story, but it didn’t do the Sullins boys any favor trying to stop Cody on either of those field goal tries.

A 3-4 record is nothing to celebrate. And Saturday’s game was not a moral victory, but a missed opportunity.

But this Tennessee team has improved significantly in the month of October. Kiffin’s recruiting efforts are going well, and developing Jonathan Crompton into a serviceable Southeastern Conference starter is tremendous advertising for any quarterback considering the Vols.

Kiffin said this strategy led Southern Cal to go unbeaten in November for four straight years. The upcoming South Carolina game is a toss-up, but I think that perfect November happens again and sends the Vols to a bowl with a 7-5 mark.

Not bad for a team hindered by a talent gap compared to the current SEC elite. But still good enough to beat Georgia and push Alabama to the limit.

What’s going to happen when Kiffin brings in another couple of recruiting classes and that talent gap closes?

Finding out the answer to that question should lead to exciting years ahead on Rocky Top.

Back to the last play of the game. Several people contacted me wondering why Cody wasn’t penalized for removing his helmet after the block, saying that Tennessee should have gotten the chance to re-kick the ball.

Nice idea. But incorrect.

It’s true that a player removing his helmet in the field of play constitutes a 15- yard penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct. And while a game can’t end on a defensive penalty, Alabama also recovered the ball after blocking the kick. Removal of the helmet also is considered a dead- ball foul, so since the game was over and there was no time for another play, there was no penalty to mark off.

Yes, this time, the SEC officials actually got it right.

John Moorehouse covers University of Tennessee football for the Times-News. E-mail him at jmoorehouse@timesnews.net.

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