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Blueprint to Make a Bowl

Butch Jones-1For every SEC game this season, we’ve broken down a blueprint to give Tennessee its best shot at winning the football game. With the bye this week and everybody buzzing about UT’s bowl potential, we’re going to quickly run down UT’s three remaining opponents, discuss a few early keys to those matchups and look at the best chance for Tennessee to make the postseason for the first time since 2010. We’ll do a more thorough blueprint for each team on game week.

As always, the blueprint is written from a Tennessee coach’s first-hand point-of-view.

 vs. Kentucky, Nov. 15

We took some pressure off ourselves with the win at South Carolina, but we really need this one too. We don’t want to leave our fate up to the Missouri game against a Tigers team that has a lot defensive talent and has shown incredible flashes at times this season.

That being said, this isn’t the same old Kentucky team. Yes, we’ve won 14 straight at home against the Wildcats and 28 of 29 overall, but Mark Stoops has this squad believing and the Wildcats have several very talented players on their roster.

Our rushing attack, which will be well-rested after a bye week, will be key in this game. The Wildcats are currently 13th in the SEC, only leading South Carolina, in rushing defense with an average of 188 yards per game given up on the ground. We can expose that with our new-look backfield of Joshua Dobbs and a healthier Jalen Hurd. Since Dobbs stepped on the field against Alabama, we’ve put 505 rushing yards in less than 120 minutes of game time. Kentucky will be in huge trouble if we continue that trend.

Defensively, stopping quarterback Patrick Towles will be our key. He’s one of the best QBs that not a ton of people know about. He has NFL size, a big arm and can pull it down and run in situations. The Wildcats average 254 yards per game through the air. Our secondary has to get better. Thankfully, Kentucky doesn’t appear to have anybody on par with Amari Cooper or Pharoh Cooper at wide receiver, but they have several good athletes including Ryan Timmons, Demarco Robinson and Javess Blue. Communication will be crucial for us. We’ve lost too many guys the past two weeks and, though we’re going to give up completions, we can’t let guys run free down the field.

 vs. Missouri, Nov. 22

We’re going to have a great chance to knock off one of the favorites at this point to win the SEC East. It will be a challenge, however. There are some Florida-like similarities here for Missouri. The Tigers are about as inept a team on offense as there is anywhere right now, but that defense can be very scary.

Coming into this weekend, the Tigers have held their last three opponents to 14 points or less. The good news for us is that we think we’re much more explosive than three teams they faced – Florida, Kentucky and Vanderbilt.

Just like last year, Missouri’s defensive ends are really, really talented. They had Kony Ealy and Michael Sam last year and they’ve picked up that production from Shane Ray (12 sacks) and Markus Golden (4.5 sacks). That could be a mismatch for us. Our offensive line is improved and Dobbs helps them out, but our offensive tackles are still a weak spot on this team.

The Tigers have been somewhat of a train wreck on offense. They’re near the bottom of the league in every offensive category, dead last in passing offense and even in some of their big wins, like Florida, it’s been the defense and special teams doing most of the heavy lifting. Maty Mauk isn’t the same player who torched us last year and he doesn’t have near the weapons to help him.

Speaking of weapons, we have to always keep an eye on Marcus Murphy, who can hurt on offense and or on special teams. This one might come down to turnover margin. Missouri is +.78 and we’re sitting at even. We’ll have to take care of the ball in that one.

 @ Vanderbilt, Nov. 22

Our only road test will be anything but a hostile environment. Our fans are going to take over that stadium and give us at worst a neutral-site feel and at best a home-field edge.

Vanderbilt isn’t good this year. There’s no denying that. But we have to stay focused in this one. There’s no James Franklin on the sideline this year, but the Commodores have defeated twice in a row and the last three have come down to the final possession. The Commodores have shown some fight this year.

They’ve hung with teams like South Carolina, Kentucky and Missouri for at least portions of the game. We don’t have to play perfect football in this one, but need to make sure we don’t go in with the mindset that this one will be handed to us. But it’s hard to find one area that Vanderbilt matches up well with us. The Commodores rank near the bottom of the league in virtually every significant statistical category.

Johnny McCrary seems to be settling in at quarterback, though it’s never easy to tell who will be the signal caller with all the switching that’s occurred this year. Running back Ralph Webb can hurt us if we’re not careful, but the biggest thing for us will be to take care of the ball, not give up any unexpected chunk plays and let our running game pound a relatively weak Vandy defensive front. If we do all that, we’ll win comfortably and wrap up a bowl bid if we can take care of business in at least one of the other two games.

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