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Reaction Time: It's Decision Time in Tennessee

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Five immediate thoughts on Saturday's early games


1. Vanderbilt 40, Kentucky 0. Remember earlier this week when Joker Phillips, fresh from Kentucky's seventh consecutive loss, made that awkward joke about getting a contract extension? (Ha ha, not really.) Yeah, apparently Kentucky fans didn't think it was very funny, either.


That shot was taken at kickoff, which was the high point of the Wildcats' afternoon. From there, Vanderbilt scored a touchdown on its first possession of the game, and on its second possession, and subsequently on three consecutive possessions in the second and third quarters en route to Vanderbilt's most lopsided SEC win since Cornelius Vanderbilt was a young boy. Kentucky did not score, and may never score again.

At this point, the question is whether Phillips will coach them again. Kentucky is off next week, ahead of an even more pointless, depressing visit from Samford that may actually result in college football's first recorded case of negative attendance, and a pointless, depressing trip to Tennessee to close. Assuming things go according to script in Knoxville, the Wildcats are spiraling toward an 0-8 finish in conference play and their first 10-loss season overall since 1994. But that's only assuming the same script includes Phillips surviving the bye week, which would be a sucker's bet if everyone in the state wasn't too consumed with the basketball team to fire off angry e-mails to the athletic director. At this point, their absence is speaking loudly enough.

03-derek_dooley2. Tennessee 55, Troy 48. Obviously, Tennessee is at the point where a win is a win is a win, even if it's a harrowing, down-to-the-wire win over a visiting Sun Belt team with a losing record, and so we were mercifully spared the spectacle of a temporarily crippled Derek Dooley being fired in the locker room after his team's fifth consecutive defeat. (I imagine Dooley gamely crawling into post-game interviews after his post-surgery cane has been confiscated, every hair still in place.) But when the Volunteers wake up tomorrow, they're still a 3-5 team that just gave up 48 points and 721 yards to Troy.

Back in January, the arrival of Sal Sunseri from Alabama as the new defensive coordinator was greeted as a master stroke, and he inherited a unit returning ten players – ten – with at least eight career starts under their belt. What is going on here? Over its previous five games, Tennessee had allowed 51 points to Georgia, 41 to Mississippi State, 44 to Alabama and 38 to South Carolina, with the Gamecocks playing more than half the game after watching their best player carted off the field with a major injury. Hell, prior to that the Vols gave up 26 to effing Akron, one week after allowing Florida to put up 37, thus creating the illusion that the Gators have a viable, championship-level offense (see below). At 4-5 now, Tennessee still has a shot at a bowl and even a winning record with Vanderbilt, Missouri and Kentucky on deck, which means Dooley still has a shot at keeping his job in 2013. If Sunseri is still around, though, either they've closed the season on three consecutive shutouts, or he's much too expensive to kick to the curb.

3. Florida 14, Missouri 7. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that they've had such little need to do much offensively opposite a top-five defense, but the Gators' resumé with the ball is as bad as Tennessee's without it: With 267 yards worth of total offense today, they've been held below 300 yards in four of their last five games, and Missouri is not LSU, South Carolina or Georgia on defense. Again, as in all of those games, turnovers were the difference today – Florida picked off James Franklin four times – but even then those opportunities only yielded a grand total of seven points.

Assuming Georgia doesn't blow its ticket to the SEC Championship Game next week at Auburn, there's only one game left for Florida where any of that might matter: At Florida State on Nov. 24, which could be for an at-large BCS game or some such stakes. But as good as Florida has been in big games, I still have a very difficult time believing in a team that relies so heavily on the giveaway/takeaway margin, on such a consistent basis, in lieu of an actual offense.

4. Cincinnati 35, Syracuse 24. Unless you're a Syracuse fan*, you probably don't care much about the score of this game or its secondary impact on the Big East standings, but assuming you care about football, you certainly do care about seeing this 4th-and-2 play by Cincinnati in the second quarter:

George "Tebow" Winn was one of four different Bearcats to attempt (and complete) a pass, in addition to 165 yards and three touchdowns on the ground. That was almost enough for me to overlook the fact that his team just gave up 479 yards of total offense to Syracuse. Almost.

* Little-known fact: There are no Cincinnati Bearcat football fans. Strange but true**.

5. Michigan 35, Minnesota 13. Last week, Denard Robinson left in the first half of an eventual loss at Nebraska, backup Russell Bellomy was picked off three times in the second half and Michigan fans spent the week openly despairing over the state of the depth chart behind Denard. Today, Robinson didn't play at all, and converted receiver Devin Gardner made him look utterly expendable. Lining up at quarterback for the first time this season, Gardner was 12-of-18 for 245 yards – he had three completions covering at least 45 – and two touchdowns, good for a sky-high pass efficiency rating of 206.6. (Robinson has only topped that number once this year, throwing just 11 times against sad-sack Illinois.) And before you complain, "Well yeah, but against Minnesota…" note that Minnesota came into the game leading the Big Ten in pass efficiency defense; Gardner's performance was the best of the year against the Gophers by a mile.

Not that that will be enough to convince coaches to let Robinson and Gardner change positions or anything next week against Northwestern, which is actually a critical game in the Legends Division. But I'm sure it's nice to know he's there.

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** Completely untrue.