This week, I talked with Terry Lambert over at Rocky Top Talk. If you want to see my answers to his questions, here’s the link
1) Despite most everyone outside of Knoxville being down on the Volunteers, a quick glance to the schedule shows that Tennessee has won the games they should and played a murderer’s row of games in West Virginia, Georgia, and Florida-- all arguable top 10 to top 15 teams. Plus a win over Auburn, though who knows how that win will look at the end of the season... Auburn is quite adept and finding ways to be really terrible any time they get preseason hype. Does the record accurately reflect the team, or is Tennessee better than most expect? Are your fans optimistic about the rest of the season, or more resigned?
A: The record is probably right in line with preseason expectations. Most people were expecting a 6-6 type season, though that looks a little tougher with Kentucky being legitimately good. This season has been really interesting in terms of changing expectations. A disappointing opener against West Virginia was a wake up call to all of us. It was a realization of how far down Tennessee still was.
Then you had the Florida game, which was weird. Tennessee basically spotted the Gators 21 points by way of turnovers, which made things look worse than they really were. The turning point was the trip to Georgia. Tennessee was down 12 points halfway through the fourth quarter and could have very easily been in contention to win. Georgia fumbled four times and somehow recovered all of them, even scoring a touchdown on one.
The Auburn game was the payoff. Finally, rock-solid, legitimate evidence of progress. We know Auburn is awful, but five games ago Tennessee was awful. For the first time in a long time, the arrow is pointing up. You’re seeing guys develop and get better. With the schedule letting up in the second half of the season, fans are optimistic that Tennessee can get to six wins, which would be a successful season.
2) Last year I did an offensive preview for our readers about the Tennessee offense, and I had to go and look at two QBs, as Guarantano was just starting to take over the lead role. Now, he’s 100% the man. He’s averaging 9 yards per attempt, which is quite explosive for an SEC QB. What kind of player is he, compared to this game last year? Where has he developed, and where does he still need to improve his game?
A: It’s all about confidence for Jarrett. He had no idea what he was seeing or doing last year, but neither did Butch Jones or offensive coordinator Larry Scott. Now he’s playing in a legitimate pro-style offense and the development has been really fun to watch. He’s able to process information a lot quicker this season and get the ball out of his hand, which is important playing behind what’s been a leaky offensive line.
He’s got three really good receivers in Jauan Jennings, Marquez Callaway and Josh Palmer. All three have size and Callaway and Palmer can really run. Guarantano leaned on them against Auburn and they came up huge, winning 50-50 balls time and time again. I’d like to see Guarantano and offensive coordinator Tyson Helton continue to stay aggressive, because Tennessee has the talent to win down the field.
3) A quick glance at the stats page shows 4 different running backs with significant carries for the Volunteers. Tim Jordan has 20 more attempts than Ty Chandler, yet Chandler has 13 more yards, plus nearly 100 more receiving yards. Jeremy Banks and Madre London aren’t all that far behind, either. How does the team utilize the stable of backs? Do they all play about the same role in relief of each other, or do certain backs have specific skill sets that have them used differently?
A: Ty Chandler missed three quarters of the West Virginia game and all of the ETSU game, so that explains why Tim Jordan has more carries. Over the past two weeks, Chandler has established himself in the passing game. He was one of the top recruits in the 2017 class and is pretty easily Tennessee’s most talented back right now. You’ll see him running plenty of routes out of the backfield and potentially lined up out wide.
Jordan has established himself as the next best option. Freshman Jeremy Banks has flashed a ton, but he can’t hold on to the football right now. That’s a name to remember down the road, however. Madre London is being used as the short yardage guy for now, even lining up at fullback from time to time.
4) Defensively, what is your best position group? And which is probably the weakest link?
A: Inside linebacker without a doubt is the strongest. Darrin Kirkland Jr., Daniel Bituli (who will miss the first half due to a targeting call), Quart’e Sapp and Will Ignont are really good players. JJ Peterson, who Pruitt wrestled away from Alabama, will be in that mix next year after arriving late this year.
To start the year, I probably would have said the secondary is the weakest point on the team. But Pruitt has been masterful in developing two true freshman cornerbacks into rock solid starters. Alontae Taylor and Bryce Thompson have been outstanding so far, but admittedly will have their hands full on Saturday.
The weakest point is probably the defensive interior. Pruitt is being forced to play some undersized guys like Kyle Phillips on the inside, simply because it’s a transitional year. I’m not real confident in this group’s ability to stand firm against the run just yet.
5) This is probably my favorite question to ask on these: Based on your knowledge of Alabama, what positional, personnel, or scheme matchup do you think that Tennessee has the best chance of exploiting successfully?
I’m going to have to go back to the wide receivers and the passing game here. And quite honestly, that’s not something I expected to say this year. Palmer, Jennings and Callaway have been so good this season. If Guarantano can get decent protection, those guys should be able to win some one on one matchups down the field. It’s going to be a case where Tennessee likely won’t be able to run against this front, so I’m expecting them to test this secondary often.
As a bonus, I’d point to Ty Chandler out of the backfield. He’s scored two weeks in a row catching passes out of the backfield in the middle of the field. Tennessee puts a lot of pressure on the deep defensive perimeters, which frees up some space for Chandler to operate.
Note from Brent: I think he’s probably right here... Mack and crew have struggled a little with backs coming out of the backfield
6) What’s your score prediction and how do we get there?
Alabama 48, Tennessee 16
This really isn’t about Tennessee, Alabama is just that good. I’m not sure there’s a team in the country that could keep it within 14 points right now. I’m sure Tua will do his damage early then head to the bench. This is going to be a bump in the road for Tennessee, but I do think better days are ahead.
Hopefully one day soon this rivalry is back to being competitive.