Tennessee football hosts UConn on Saturday for its final non conference game of the season to open up November. The Vols are looking for their seventh win of the season ahead of a trio of SEC games to close the season.
Josh Heupel’s team is 36-point favorites in this one so a win is nearly a given. As we’ve done earlier in the season against lesser opponents, these keys will look at what Tennessee needs to do to leave this game feeling good and to make sure it’s not competitive in the second half.
Here’s three keys for the Vols to do just that against Kentucky.
This is a simple one. Tennessee needs to come out dialed in here in a classic trap game spot. The Vols are coming off three straight SEC games and a huge win at Kentucky and have top 15 matchups against Missouri and Georgia upcoming.
If Tennessee comes out flat, they should still defeat UConn with ease. However, a sluggish start would not be convincing. Tennessee has been good in these spots in Josh Heupel’s tenure and are looking to continue that on homecoming.
The importance of starting fast is fairly obvious. It puts the Huskies away early and all but guarantees a victory. It would also create plenty of second half playing time for a number of Tennessee underclassmen— most notably Nico Iamaleava.
More from RTI: See Tennessee-UConn Game Line As Kickoff Approaches
Milton and Thornton Keep Improving
Joe Milton III is coming off his two best games of the season and perhaps his two best games in his Tennessee career. The super senior quarterback is making plays with his leg and just as importantly is extending plays and making big throws on the run.
Those are two things we hadn’t seen a ton of from Milton this season and have brought a new element to Tennessee’s offense.
Another player that turned in his best outing of the season against Kentucky is Dont’e Thornton. The Oregon transfer earned his first start of the season out wide and while his three catches for 63 yards weren’t spectacular it was far more than he’s done the rest of the season.
The 6-foot-5 speedster is incredibly talented and has a high ceiling. At his best, Thornton brings a new element to the Vols’ offense.
Before two games where Tennessee’s offense is going to have to play well to win, I’m looking for more strong play from Milton and Thornton. Neither need to do anything spectacular but both need to play well enough to keep the positive momentum moving.
Tennessee needs to leave the UConn game feeling like Milton is turning the corner and is playing at a different level than he did for most of the season. For Thornton, it’s about proving it wasn’t just a one off performance but that he can be a reliable receiver for Tennessee the rest of the season.
Secondary Bounces Back
Tennessee’s secondary’s first game without star corner Kamal Hadden was underwhelming at best. Granted, the Vols game plan was to take the run away from Kentucky and make the Wildcats beat them through the air.
Still, Kentucky having its best passing performance of the season against a myriad of zone coverage from Tennessee doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence.
The good news: UConn has a bad passing attack and has struggled to get much going through the air this season. The bad news: Tennessee faces Missouri and one of the SEC’s best passing attacks a week later.
Getting some confidence and getting things back on track in the back end of Tennessee’s defense ahead of the Missouri and Georgia games is important. The Vols have a good chance to do just that against UConn.