Tennessee vs. Arkansas State
Saturday, Noon ET
Neyland Stadium (102,455) • Knoxville, Tenn.
TV: The SEC Network
Series Record: 1-0 Tennessee
Setting the table
Last week’s opener against Utah State went as good or better than any Tennessee fan could’ve imagined. Sure, there were a few mistakes that will need to be corrected and improved upon going forward, but beating a decent team like Utah State by a final of 38-7 was about best-case scenario for a Tennessee team that had nearly half of its roster playing college football for the first time on Sunday. Arkansas State brings another set of challenges. Tennessee had all summer to prep for Utah State. Now there’s a short turnaround to get ready for another program that’s used to winning. The Red Wolves, despite going through five different head coaches in the last five years, have averaged approximately nine wins per season over the last three years.
Who has the edge
When Tennessee passes…
We caught some glimpses of what this passing attack is capable of against Utah State. The Vols attacked the Aggies in the short-to-midrange passing game, getting the ball to their playmakers in space, getting some blocks and turning some of those into big plays. It’s still clearly a work in progress, however. The Vols took six deep shots and didn’t complete any of them – not even coming that close on a few of them. This week will be a good test for UT’s passing game. Arkansas State has a veteran secondary with more experience and speed than what UT faced against Utah State. Look for Tennessee to continue to get the ball out to the perimeter on Saturday and to make plays that way. Expect them to hit on at least a couple of deep shots as well. Edge: Tennessee
When Tennessee runs…
It wasn’t pretty against Utah State. The Vols averaged just 2.8 yards per carry and Butch Jones bemoaned the lack of overall efficiency on the ground. But Arkansas State presents a great opportunity for the Vols to show progress. The Red Wolves are inexperienced and relatively small up front. The Vols were close – missing a few opportunities for long runs by just one or two blocks. All 11 players need to sync up better for the Vols to get rhythm and that challenge gets even tougher with the loss of left tackle Jacob Gilliam going forward. The Vols are looking for at least 60 percent efficiency in the run game – meaning they either get 4.0 yards per carry or the first down to be “efficient” in UT vernacular. Tennessee needs to get to that this week, and the Vols should have a good chance to do it. Edge: Tennessee
When Arkansas State passes…
Tennessee’s secondary was strong on Sunday – allowing just 144 yards and picking off two passes. And that was against an extremely experienced quarterback. Arkansas State quarterback Fredi Knighten is certainly a dynamic player overall, but he’s unproven as a passer overall. That’s not to say he can’t hurt the Vols. Like last week, UT will need to have great discipline in holding their assignments when Knighten gets outside the pocket. Arkansas State receiver Tres Houston and A-back J.D. McKissic can both make plays when they get their hands on the ball. If the Vols can keep everything in front of them, Cam Sutton continues to play at a high level and Justin Coleman rebounds from some mistakes last week , the Vols should have the advantage here. Edge: Tennessee
The Red Wolves have several options in the run game. It starts with Knighten – who led the team with 93 yards in the opener. He’s faster than what Tennessee faced in Keeton and there’s no doubt that he’ll pull the ball down and run some. Running back Michael Gordon is a good option as well. He averaged nearly 10 yards per carry against Montana State in the opener. The Vols were pretty good against the run on Sunday. The upgrade of overall athleticism was evident and linebackers A.J. Johnson and Jalen Reeves-Maybin were everywhere. The Red Wolves could certainly break some runs, though it’s not a huge advantage for them. Edge: Even
Tennessee didn’t have any catastrophic errors in the opener on special teams. In fact, a forced fumble on kickoff coverage was one of the plays of the game. Still, Butch Jones wasn’t pleased with a lot of the smaller details on special teams. And the kicking game has some questions. Matt Darr got banged up in last week’s game and, though he’ll play, we’re not positive he’ll be 100 percent. Aaron Medley has also been absent during the open portions of practice this week, so we’re not positive what his status will be either. The Red Wolves, meanwhile, have the returning Sun Belt Special Teams Player of the Week in kicker/punter Luke Ferguson – who made three field goals and punted well. McKissic and Blaise Taylor can make plays in the return game if Tennessee is sloppy. Edge: Even
What Arkansas State is thinking
We’ve got the best of both worlds on Saturday. Tennessee isn’t an elite SEC squad, but the Vols are feeling a little too confident after blowing out a Utah State squad that wasn’t as good as people thought. Tennessee is thinking about Oklahoma in the backs of their mind, so this is our chance to shock the world. The crowd won’t be as crazy for the noon kickoff and there’s no way UT goes another week without a turnover. We’ll capitalize on some mistakes like South Alabama did last year, Fredi Knighten will make plays with his arm and feet and we’ll be in this.
What Tennessee is thinking
Sunday was a great start. We heard all summer about how Utah State was going to either keep it close or beat us and you saw our overall upgrades in talent, speed and how much we’re progressing as a team. And the best news? We still didn’t even play anywhere close to as well as we can. Arkansas State certainly brings some different challenges and perhaps more overall teams speed, but if we build on what we did Sunday, we should take care of business.
With a young roster and short turnaround, anything can obviously happen. Arkansas State knows how to win as a program, and if UT is loose with the football or doesn’t come in focused – perhaps thinking ahead – it could get interesting. But we like Tennessee, and the spread that has hovered a little over two touchdowns seems extremely reasonable. Tennessee should cover that and perhaps even exceed it if the Vols play like they are capable of.