There’s no excuse whatsoever for Tennessee this week. Coming off a three-game span where anything and everything has gone wrong, the Vols (5-3, 2-3 SEC) have must take care of business against a vastly inferior opponent talent-wise on Saturday in Tennessee Tech (3-5, 3-3 OVC).
If this game is anything other than a UT win by several scores, things are worse than we realize.
But as Tennessee has reminded us several times this season, anything can happen. And the Vols have shown a propensity to play down to anybody, so there is somewhat of a mysterious element to Saturday’s game. There is some FCS history to encourage Tech as well. Earlier this year, Nicholls took Georgia down to the wire before falling 26-24. The Citadel knocked off South Carolina last year, and Georgia Southern (while still in the FCS) took out Florida in 2013. It can be done.
The Vols can’t become the next cautionary tale. I don’t think they will. It’s tough to envision a crisp, well-played game for Tennessee at this point based on what its shown the past few weeks. But the talent gap is large, and I think the Jalen Hurd situation should galvanize the team to an extent. His pure skill can’t be replaced, but if it brings the team a little bit closer, it could be a boost for UT down the stretch.
The formula for a team like Tech to pull off an upset over an SEC team is to run the ball, milk the clock and try to get it to the fourth quarter. Tech isn’t built that way, however. The Golden Eagles are one of the worst rushing teams at the FCS level, so they shouldn’t be able to pound the ball against UT. I do expect their passing attack – led by Marshall transfer quarterback Michael Birdsong and Louisville transfer receiver Dontez Byrd – to make a few plays against a beat-up Tennessee secondary.
That won’t be enough, in my opinion. John Kelly should have a big day on the ground, and I don’t see Tech’s corners being able to stick with Josh Malone, Jauan Jennings, Tyler Byrd and others all day. Tech will have to sell out to stop the run, so there shouldn’t be a ton of help in the secondary. Tennessee must exploit that.
There will be a few “what was that?” moments for Tennessee. But I think Tennessee gets back on a track a bit, at least this week, and piles up some points. If the Vols can do that, and perhaps get a win from Arkansas over Florida, Saturday could turn out to be a decent day.
Pick: Tennessee 41-14
MVP: RB John Kelly
I don’t want to be hyperbolic about Kelly because the sample size is still relatively small. But I think he has the chance to be a really good player in this offense, and UT fans have something to be excited about at the running back position going forward – something I wasn’t sure if I would be able to say following the 2016 season. He runs hard, brings a little more burst than Hurd and the team seems to rally around him. I think he’ll hit the century mark this week.
The Vols are in a very dangerous spot right now. If they were playing anyone other than a mediocre FCS school, I’d be pretty worried about Tennessee getting upset for the second straight week. Since this is Tennessee Tech, however, there shouldn’t be much to worry about.
And if there is, then things are much, much worse than we all thought.
Tennessee isn’t losing to Tennessee Tech, however. Say what you want about the Vols, but they’re still a good team. They just don’t always play like it. And even if Josh Dobbs and the offense have a similar clunker to what they did last week against South Carolina, they still won’t lose to Tech. The talent gap is that wide.
I expect the Vols to get a couple non-offensive touchdowns in this one. Evan Berry could very well make it two weeks in a row where he scores on a kickoff, and the defense could end up with a score as well. I’m even going to predict that Tyler Byrd or someone else gets in late to replace Josh Smith at punt returner and scores a touchdown.
Simply put: The Vols are much better than Tech. The Golden Eagles can throw the ball well, but that’s not been what’s been killing the Vols on defense this year so far (for the most part). Tennessee’s walk-ons could be starters at Tech.
I’m not trying to be disparaging towards Tech at all. They are a well-run program and coached by someone who has ties to the Vols. They deserve to be respected, and Butch Jones will make sure his players do.
But only off the field. Because the Vols should absolutely take out their frustrations and disrespect them on the field in order to take a step away from the disaster that was last week.
MVP: KR Evan Berry
Not only do I think Evan Berry could return a kickoff for a touchdown (or maybe two), but I think he gets a few more touches on offense as well and starts to prove he needs to be utilized more. He did get a carry against South Carolina, and Jones said Berry’s role will expand moving forward. He’s said that before too, but now it’s time to back up his words. And what better game to start than against an FCS opponent after a crushing loss?