RTI Mailbag: Vols Preparing For Primetime Matchup

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    (Photo via Tennessee Athletics)

    The stage is set for Tennessee (4-2, 2-1 SEC) primetime week seven matchup with Lane Kiffin and No. 13 Ole Miss (4-1, 1-1 SEC).

    The nation’s two fastest offenses will take the field at Neyland Stadium for a game Vegas is expecting to be close with a lot of points. The RTI team answers all your questions about the Vols and the matchup in this week’s mailbag article.

    Ole Miss has a great offense but so is ours so do you think Tennessee’s defense will be the main difference in this one?

    Ric Butler: Heading into this game on Saturday night, I feel fairly confident that the biggest advantage Tennessee could take involves both the offense and defense. I would say the biggest area that Tennessee could make an impact in is turnovers. Tennessee’s offense has been great at securing the ball lately, and the defense has been taking them away by sky and by ground. I do think that there will be a lot of pressure on Tennessee’s defense for this game, but I think Ole Miss’s defensive unit will feel the heat on the road as well. Neither team is reliant on their defense, really. The most important things for Tennessee’s defense will be to halt momentum and to create turnovers. Halting momentum just means that the more times Tennessee can force a three-and-out, or maybe push Ole Miss backward to a third-and-long, the better. But really, I do believe the biggest factor will be in the turnover department. Both offenses are going to put up points, whether it is 3 or 7 on most drives. So for the Vols’ defense, limiting Ole Miss’ scoring possessions, one way or another, will be crucial. The Tennessee defense has played well, and has overcome many obstacles. But Saturday night will be a whole new test.

    Ryan Schumpert: I think that’s probably a bit of an oversimplification, but certainly, how Tennessee’s defense plays will be a major factor in this game. One thing I’ll say too, Ole Miss’ offense is better than Tennessee’s. The Vols offense has been great the last two weeks but needs to keep showing consistency and I want to see it in the second half of a close game. Still, Ole Miss rush defense has been bad this season— albeit not Missouri bad— but I think Tiyon Evans, Jabari Small and Hendon Hooker will be able to run the ball successfully against the Rebels and Tennessee will put up points. Now the challenge is an extremely challenging one for a Tennessee defense that has overachieved this season. Still, this is the greatest challenge they’ve faced to date and likely will be the biggest challenge of the whole season. Look for Ole Miss to give Tennessee real problems with its vertical passing game but I’m interested to see how the Vols’ run defense holds up. If Tennessee can limit Ole Miss’ solid rushing attack, that gives them a much better chance of getting off the field against a team that frequently uses all four downs. Ole Miss will put up yards but if Tennessee can string together strong four play sequences and maybe force a turnover or two, than the Vols’ defense will give Tennessee a great chance to win.

    What do you look from for this season to determine if its a success or failure for the new coaching staff?

    Ric: You know, I think this question boils down to three things, that you can grade at the end of the season. The first big idea is the simpliest, and that’s just looking at the overall win/loss record. While Tennessee has a variety of goals for the season, a strong win/loss record is near the top of that. In that light, I think making a bowl game here in the first year would be a big sign of positivity. The second idea I look at is the development of players. Regardless of if a player was on the Tennessee team in 2020 or not, did Tennessee’s players get better throughout the season? Did position groups get better as the season progressed? I do believe at the halfway point, here, that answer is trending towards yes. The third and final notion I think of to determine success is just the environment – as in both in Knoxville and around the facilities. On one hand, the excitement around the Tennessee fanbase is skyrocketing, as Tennessee just announced its first sellout in more than four years. But on the other hand, for months now, players have spoken about the family type of atmosphere that Heupel has created. How great it feels to be in the building, surrounded by teammates and coaches that work to encourage and help each other. After the South Carolina game, players spoke about how Heupel allows the players with children to bring their kids into the locker room, which means the world to guys like Tiyon Evans and Brandon Turnage. I know a healthy locker room environment does not create success alone, but, it is an important contributing factor and one that the last administration did not have enough of.

    Ryan: This is a good question. To answer your question at face value, then I think it’s as simple as winning as many games as possible. What makes this individual season a success is about how many games you win. If Tennessee wins seven regular-season games I think that’s certainly a major success. If the Vols win just six regular-season games I certainly don’t think that’s a failure but I don’t see it as a massive success either. Maybe there’s more value in winning a game like Saturday against a top 15 team at home with a lot of eyes on the program, but overall I think it’s just about winning as many games as you can. As far as what I’m looking for this season from Josh Heupel and his staff? I want to see if the team continues to get better as the season goes along, I’m curious to see if Tennessee’s offense can have any success against Alabama and Georgia, I want to see how Heupel coaches in a tight game in the second half and I want to see if Tennessee’s defense can keep surviving and playing solid football against better offenses. How I feel about next season at the end of this season will depend on those things and whether Tennessee’s young defenders can continue to develop and earn real playing time and I want to see if any of Tennessee’s sophomore receivers can show some consistency. There’s a lot of things that will tell us about Josh Heupel and his staff this season, but the most important thing is as simple as winning as many games as you can this fall.

    Tennessee has struggled with dual-threat quarterbacks this season. How do they go about stopping Matt Corral? Drop eight? Blitz him? Spy him?

    Ric: Oh, that is tough. I think it’s more about… wait for it… corralling Matt Corral. Admit it! That was a good one. Anyways, I do think Tennessee’s goal will be to slow down and contain Corral. I think one of the most important things to do in this game is for someone to always be ready to contain the Ole Miss QB. Corral is a guy who can and will extend play on his feet and turn broken plays into big plays. I think you see Tennessee do a combination of different things, but the real question, to me, is how does Tennessee attack Ole Miss on third-down situations. Lane Kiffin’s offense is not scared of fourth-down, which sometimes turns their third-down play into a second-down play. Kiffin is not afraid to push the chains on fourth down, even from a distance. So I think it will be extra critical for Tennessee’s offense to create havoc on third downs with the goal of moving Ole Miss behind their starting point, to hopefully make that upcoming fourth down look more treacherous. I think Tennessee will bring out some exotic blitz packages throughout the game, though, to make Matt Corral uncomfortable.

    Ryan: If I had a correct answer to this Tennessee would pay me upwards of seven figures a season to coach football. Alabama has been the only team to really figure that out this season and that defense is full of former five-stars. Corral has thrown for 1,497 yards and 12 touchdowns with no interceptions so far this season. It seemed like Tennessee had its most success against Kenny Pickett and Pitt when they blitzed three and spied him so that’s my best guess. I certainly wouldn’t bring four a ton against him. The Vols haven’t had much success blitzing four this season but have done a great job of scheming up blitz packages. What Tennessee should do to stop Matt Corral is the million-dollar question but it isn’t one with many great options. It’s going to be about Tennessee finding a way to execute and make plays.

    Ryan Schumpert is a senior at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville who has covered University of Tennessee athletics since the moment he stepped on campus. He just completed a three-year stint with the Daily Beacon, the last two of which as the Sports Editor. Ryan also spent last three years at Volquest providing strong Tennessee baseball coverage of Tony Vitello's resurgent program. While the bulk of Ryan's responsibilities involved beat coverage and writing, he also recorded podcasts for both the Beacon and Volquest. Did we leave out the part about Ryan interning for the Smokies? Ryan's work ethic, versatility, and strong writing skills are but three of the reasons why Vol Nation will be hearing from Ryan for years to come.