The RTI team makes their picks for the Vols’ match-up with the UAB Blazers this upcoming Saturday. Managing editor Nathanael Rutherford and RTI contributor Robert Hughes share their predictions for the Vols’ last non-conference game of the season.
On paper, this game should really concern Vol fans. UAB has one of the best defenses statistically in the entire country, and the Blazers are 6-1 heading into this weekend’s game. It has all the makings of a trap game for Tennessee, as the Vols come off of a huge 41-21 victory over South Carolina and have three pivotal SEC match-ups remaining in November.
Don’t get me wrong, UAB is a really good team, and they should contend for a Conference USA title.
With that being said, though, they’re a bit of a paper tiger.
The Blazers have played one team with a winning record all season, and they lost to them. Western Kentucky is the only team UAB has faced this season with an above .500 record, and they lost to the Hilltoppers 20-13 thanks to four interceptions thrown by their starting quarterback, Tyler Johnson III.
So, what about the other teams UAB has faced?
UAB has wins over a bad FCS opponent in Alabama State, and only one of their other five wins has come against a team with more than one win on the season.
All in all, the Blazers’ five wins against FBS teams have come against teams with a combined 5-34 record. If you throw in Alabama State, UAB’s six wins have come against teams with a combined 8-38 record on the season so far.
Yes, Tennessee also has a losing record like the rest of those schools. But the Vols are undoubtedly better than an 0-8 Akron team that managed to lose just 31-20 to UAB.
The Blazers’ defense ranks in the top 15 in the country in points allowed per game, total yards allowed per game, rushing yards allowed, passing yards allowed, and third down defense. But, again, let’s take some of that with a grain of salt.
All six FBS teams UAB has faced this season rank in the bottom 100 in the FBS in scoring offense, with Western Kentucky ranking the highest at 107th. UTSA (116th), Rice (124th), South Alabama (127th), Old Dominion (128th), and Akron (129th) all have some of the worst scoring offenses in the country. Only Northwestern has scored fewer points per game this season than Akron among all 130 FBS schools.
The same can be said for those same teams in terms of total offense. Old Dominion is dead last in the FBS in total offensive yards per game, and the other five FBS opponents on UAB’s schedule are 105th or worse.
Granted, Tennessee ranks 97th nationally in points per game and 103rd in total offense, so their rankings aren’t much better. But you also have to consider the defenses the Vols have faced compared to the defenses Rice, Akron, and Old Dominion have faced.
All in all, I expect the Vols to win, regardless of who they start at quarterback against the Blazers. But I do think UAB is good, and I think their defense will be very tough to gain yards on. However, the Blazers are turnover prone, and I don’t think the Vols will overlook another Group of Five non-conference opponent with the way this season started.
I don’t expect a high-scoring affair, but I do think Tennessee wins and covers the spread.
Pick: 27-10, Tennessee
MVP: Jauan Jennings, Tennessee WR
I was spot on with my MVP pick of Jennings last week, so I’m going to dip back into that well for this week. Jennings will likely get a couple snaps from the wildcat QB spot again, and I think he’ll be the top target in the passing game once again. I do think UT probably tries to run it a little more in this game, but I don’t know that UAB has a corner that can match up well enough with Jennings to keep him out of the end zone a couple times.
Before the season started, Tennessee’s homecoming game against UAB looked by many, including myself, to be a guaranteed win. Given Tennessee’s roller-coaster season, however, the outcome on any given Saturday is anything but certain.
It almost seems as though the only staple of consistency in Tennessee’s season thus far has been that nobody has any idea what to expect.
What likely should have been wins against Georgia State and BYU ended in head-scratching, disappointing, and infuriating losses. What almost everyone pegged as a loss beforehand was a game on the road against Alabama, and that ended up being one of the Vols’ most competitive games thus far.
In Tennessee’s most recent match-up, many had the game against South Carolina as the most evenly-matched contest to this point in the season, and the Vols dominated the Gamecocks in the second half en route to a 41-21 victory.
But these are the facts:
The UAB Blazers are a Conference USA team with a 6-1 record. Their only loss came by single digits in a 20-13 defeat on the road against Western Kentucky.
They have the fifth-best defense in the nation.
No, not in their conference; they have the fifth-best defense in all of the FBS.
They give up just 248.6 yards per game and only 90.3 of those yards come on the ground. They hold opponents to under 16 points a game, and the most any opponent has scored on them is 20 points (which has happened three times).
However, their seven opponents have combined for just 13 wins, totaling a combined record of 13-41. Those opponents are Alabama State (3-4), Akron (0-8), South Alabama (1-7), Western Kentucky (5-3), Rice (0-8), University of Texas at San Antonio (3-4), and Old Dominion (1-7).
Granted, Tennessee’s record sits at 3-5 right now.
Not to mention Tennessee has yet to name a starting quarterback. For the second week in a row, Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt could start one of any three quarterbacks in Brian Maurer, Jarrett Guarantano, or JT Shrout, and he might even start a wide receiver (Jauan Jennings) under center like he did last week against South Carolina.
All uncertainty aside, however, I believe the Vols come out on top. Yes, UAB’s defense is really good, but Tennessee offensive coordinator Jim Cheney has shown he’s willing to use any and all quarterbacks in a variety of ways, and each one looked solid last week against the Gamecocks. If Maurer is healthy enough to start, I definitely think the Vols win handily against the Blazers. Tennessee continues to trend upward, and I do not see the Volunteers letting a non-conference opponent get the best of them for a third time.
Pick: 38-17, Tennessee
MVP: Brian Maurer, Tennessee QB
It’s hard to pick an MVP for this game as it’s likely that more than one quarterback will see snaps on Saturday, but I believe Maurer will be ready to go. If he can manage the game well enough, Tennessee should follow its quarterback to a relatively smooth victory.