Tennessee is looking to rebound from the first loss of the Josh Heupel era Saturday against a bad Tennessee Tech team.
There’s another quarterback controversy brewing in Knoxville after Hendon Hooker replaced an injured Joe Milton in the second quarter against Pitt. The RTI team tackles your questions on the quarterbacks and more in this week’s mailbag article.
What is a realistic goal to get out of this week going against quite frankly one of the worst teams in FCS football?
Ric Butler: With Tennessee Tech not presenting Tennessee much of a challenge on the field Saturday, every indication should be that this game will be a good final tune-up before Florida. So I’m certainly looking at Tennessee to address some of the more detailed issues from the first few weeks. On that note, the biggest thing I want to see is a clean game as far as penalties and turnovers. The Vols were killed in that area last week, and can’t afford another three turnover/13 penalty game in SEC play. The other goal that I think will benefit Tennessee is Byron Young looking comfortable on the field. The Vols defensive line has been a strength of the team so far, and Young could be a really productive edge rusher. I’m looking at Young to see how much playtime he gets, how comfortable he looks, and how he makes the defense different than it was in the first two weeks.
Ryan Schumpert: This is a good question because the assertion is accurate. Tennessee Tech is really bad, even for an FCS team. So what can Tennessee accomplish this week? First, Tennessee needs to get healthy and stay healthy. If Joe Milton can play and Heupel still believes he’s his starting quarterback then you play him to build confidence, but besides that any of these players that are banged up, I wouldn’t play. The Vols play five straight SEC games following the Tennessee Tech game and before the bye week. So a realistic goal should be to get this one out of hand in the first half so backups can get playing time and starters can get rested up for the road trip to Gainesville. On top of that, it would be good to see Tennessee hit some of those long passes they’ve missed in abundance the last two weeks.
The defense has played pretty well through the first two games (despite giving up 41 points to Pitt). Creating turnovers seems to be the biggest thing missing from their performance, why can’t they force turnovers?
Ric: I think there are so many variables that go into turnovers, and one of the biggest is truly luck. Look back at Tennessee’s turnovers against Pitt. The first was a fumble on a play where the starting quarterback was injured for the entirety of the game. The second was on a backup quarterback’s sixteenth play of the season. And the third was on a backup quarterback’s intercepted throw. Sometimes, there’s just a lot of unknown variables that go into turnovers. But on the other hand, there are ways to put the team in better positions to receive turnovers. Again, looking back on Tennessee’s three turnovers last week, two were directly because of a strong pass rush. Tennessee has been strong in their rush this season, but they can always be better. Other than that, I just think it’s a matter of being in the right place at the right time, which is set up by coaching, and a little bit of luck.
Ryan: Tennessee’s defense has been at least a little bit better than I’ve expected through two games, mostly because they’ve had a legitimately solid run defense. The inability to force turnovers has been the big negative, especially since the offense has turned it over four times. I think a lot of it is as simple as not having an effective pass rush. Tennessee pressured Kenny Pickett very rarely Saturday and when they did it was almost never with a four-man rush. Getting pressure on the quarterback is the best way to force bad decisions and create turnovers, and the Vols’ secondary doesn’t have a ballhawk that’s going to go out and make big plays. Let’s see how much Byron Young can improve Tennessee’s ability to get after the passer. It could completely change the potential of this defense. As for forcing fumbles, Tennessee is clearly trying. There’s been no shortage of attempts to strip ball carriers.
Is Harrison Bailey really bad enough to be third-string, or does Heupel’s offense need a running quarterback to function properly?
Ric: This is an interesting question that has been bouncing all over Knoxville this week. I’ll work the question backward though. Does the offense need a running quarterback? No, not from what I have seen. But man, the times that Tennessee has gotten in trouble has been when a QB has been forced outside of the pocket. I think the benefit of having a running quarterback right now is just having the ability to get out of a breaking pocket. Tennessee did use designed runs for Milton and Hooker, but I don’t think that’s what the entire offense is based around. I think at the end of the day, the reason that Heupel has gone with Milton and Hooker over Bailey is that they can offer more to the table. Is Bailey bad enough to be third string? I don’t think I would phrase it that way, because he isn’t a bad quarterback by any means. But Heupel said his quarterback would earn their time on the field. And I do believe that Milton and Hooker did show more in fall camp and that’s why they are on the field.
Ryan: I think it’s a little bit of both here. First, I don’t think Heupel’s offense needs a running quarterback to function properly, but behind this offensive line, it needs a running quarterback to reach its full potential. You need a signal caller that can extend plays and pick up first downs with his feet the way Hendon Hooker did against Pitt. That isn’t the only reason Harrison Bailey is the third string though. In viewing portions of practice— which were mostly routes on air— Milton was definitely more accurate than Bailey and Hooker. Bailey and Hooker were pretty similar in their accuracy and obviously Hooker has the advantage in the mobility department. That isn’t to say Bailey wouldn’t have connected on some of the passes Milton has missed this season, it’s just that he ‘s been the worse option in practice and Heupel seems to believe Milton can turn it around and play closer to his potential.
Outside of the “gimme” games left on the schedule, what games do the Vols have the best chance of playing the spoiler role and still getting to six wins.
Ric: Alright, I like this game! Let’s play a little pick em! Upcoming losses: Florida, Alabama, Ole Miss, Georgia. Upcoming wins: Tennessee Tech, Vanderbilt, South Alabama. At least for me, that leaves Missouri, South Carolina, and Kentucky. Or as I like to say, “The three other teams on the middle tier of the SEC East with Tennessee.” I’ll start by saying that I think those are Tennessee’s three key opportunities to change the course of the season. If Tennessee can win two or more of those three, they will finish the season .500 or better. If they can only win one though, it will be another 5-7 season. I lean towards Kentucky as a loss, although they are a long way away. That leaves South Carolina and Missouri, two back-to-back opponents for Tennessee early in the season as arguably the two most important games this season. Missouri threw the ball over the field on Kentucky, while the Cats dominated the run game against the Tigers. Meanwhile, I’m not sure where Tennessee’s offense identity lies. It looked like the run game, until Tiyon Evans and Jabari Small were unavailable in week two. The pass game looks like a work in progress, even though it’s already an improvement from 2020. Tennessee HAS to find its identity before those two games because going .500 or not will likely be in the balance.
Ryan: Let’s start by categorizing the games. I’ll say Tennessee Tech, South Alabama and Vanderbilt are the “gimmes” left on the schedule. That means Tennessee needs to more wins to become bowl eligible. South Carolina will be the next easiest game and that’s one Tennessee will be favored at home in. If Heupel and the Vols can’t win that one then the path to bowl eligibility is very slim. After that, the next two easiest games are road trips to Missouri and Kentucky. The Wildcats beat Missouri at home last weekend by just a touchdown, but they really controlled the game and look much better offensively under new coordinator Liam Cone Laser. I’ll take Missouri as the most likely game Tennessee plays spoiler and gets an upset win. Missouri has been a bit underwhelming through two weeks and its defense looked porous against Kentucky. Heupel’s eyes should widen when he watched the tape of that game. Still, Missouri is good on offense and quarterback Connor Bazelak does a lot of the same things Kenny Pickett does. If Tennessee can figure out its pass rush then that game looks very winnable to me. I still won’t rule out a victory at Kentucky either. While UK has looked good through two weeks and I think they’re the better team, that’s not an unwinnable game for a UT program that’s lost to the Wildcats three times since the Reagan administration.