After a convincing win over Utah State and a comfortable victory over Arkansas State, the Vols are 2-0 – right where we predicted them to be at this point prior to the season. What have we learned through two games? Here are five things we know about the Vols headed into Oklahoma.
1. They are well coached.
It’s no secret the Vols are a young them. They’ve played 22 true freshman, which leads the nation, and 32 players made their Vol debut against Utah State. With all that youth, penalties, blown assignments and a general lack of execution would be understandable, yet those things have been nowhere to be found. Tennessee has been penalized just eight times for 54 yards this season – good for 13th nationally and 2nd in the SEC. That’s almost unbelievable when you consider how inexperienced the Vols are and Butch and Co. deserve a ton of credit for getting their team ready to play. There’s no doubt the Vols are playing disciplined, assignment football. That’s the reason they’re 2-0 and a big improvement from the days not so long ago when they couldn’t count to 11 or get the proper personnel on the field.
2. Their talent level is on the rise.
If you’ve watched one snap this year, odds are you already know this. The Volunteers have more speed and better athletes across the board than they’ve fielded in years. Even more importantly, their most talented players are underclassmen. Depth is still an issue, but this staff’s ability to prepare their talented, young players for meaningful snaps suggests attrition won’t hurt them as much this year as the last. We’ve already seen that at the safety position. Brian Randolph was limited against Arkansas State and Todd Kelly Jr. came in and played very well in his spot. Expect to see several freshman play increased snaps as the season progresses. That’s a good thing, too, because most of them have more natural ability than their more experienced teammates. Rest assured, Tennessee is trending in the right direction and getting closer to competing with the elite teams in the SEC.
3. Their defense is improved.
Through two games, the Vols have improved in every significant statistical category. They’re pressuring the quarterback more than last year. They’re not missing near as many tackles. They’re giving up fewer big plays. Vol defensive coordinator John Jancek deserves a ton of credit. He didn’t have many weapons to work with last year. When he blitzed, the pressure rarely got to the QB which exposed his secondary. When he didn’t blitz, teams slowly picked apart the Vol defense. This season he’s been creative with his formations and personnel. The Vols have played a 3-3-5 defense quite a bit in an effort to get their best 11 players on the field and it has worked well. Using Chris Weatherd, who has the size of an outside linebacker, as a pass rushing defensive end/tackle, is just one example of Jancek’s outside-the-box thinking. It’s exactly that type of thinking that will prove to be even more beneficial as the Vols add more talent in 2015.
4. They’re paying for Dooley’s failure to recruit offensive linemen.
Dooley didn’t sign one offensive lineman in the 2012 class. Not one. And the Vols are still paying for it. Tennessee’s offensive front is without a doubt the biggest weakness on this football team. They don’t have depth and they’re not particularly talented. In fact, they’re the only unit on the team that hasn’t improved this season. One of their most consistent performers through two games has been true freshman right guard Jashon Robertson. You’ll see more of true freshman Coleman Thomas as the season progresses. There’s no doubt several of UT’s young linemen have bright futures ahead of them – they’re beating out leftovers from the Dooley regime – but the line will struggle mightily this year and a good portion of that blame should be directed at Tennessee’s previous coach.
5. A 6-6 season should be considered a success.
Yes, the Vols are one-third of the way there. But the schedule is about to take a difficult turn. The Vols haven’t beaten a top-5 team on the road in nearly a decade. They haven’t even beaten a team with a winning record on the road since 2009. Oklahoma is a top-5 team and Georgia will likely be a top-5 team when the Vols head to Athens in two weeks. For a victory against either, the men in orange will need to play better football than we’ve seen from them in the last 10 years. Florida comes into town on October 4th and Tennessee will have a great shot at ending their losing streak in that one, but the Gator defensive front is one of the best in the nation and will pose a nightmare matchup for Tennessee’s offensive line. Don’t be surprised if the Vols lose the next three games. If they do, that leaves them with likely wins against UTC, Vanderbilt and Kentucky on the schedule. If they don’t down Florida, they’ll need to knock off either Missouri or South Carolina to go bowling. That’s doable and I think the Vols will get there. But even if the Vols don’t manage to get to 6-6 this season (read: their offensive line is a giant liability), the program is headed in the right direction and bound for a big year in 2015. Keep that in mind if it gets ugly in Norman this weekend.