As Alabama gets set to travel to
the garbage truck workers convention Neyland Stadium tomorrow, I spoke with Terry Lambert from Rocky Top Talk, a regular on these Q&A’s with us for years now. So props to Terry for sticking around that long. I know it must be hard to lose and be sad this many times and then have to go home and look at all that gaudy orange.
In any case, he gave some great answers here. And go check out my answers to his questions on their site if you need to heckle some Vols fans.
1. The talk of the town is that, finally, for real this time (for real, I swear), Tennessee is BACK. In fact most everyone in the media and on Twitter is predicting an Alabama loss. Just how confident are Tennessee fans, really? Is this legit, or just another mirage?
Tennessee fans are sipping the kool-aid again. And let me be totally clear, we needed to see a win against Florida before we would even entertain it. That was a tidal wave of relief, and then last week in Death Valley got any remaining stragglers in the boat. Josh Heupel has seemingly done this overnight, dragging us from the 100s of total offense to literally No. 1. It’s really impressive — honestly shocking. Literally nobody saw this coming, and it’s been such a nice surprise so early into the Heupel era.
I’ll go into this further below, but Tennessee is ‘back’ because of Hendon Hooker. Dude is legit. He brings it every game. Having that big of an advantage under center allows you to play with just about anybody.
2. In case you didn’t address this in the previous question: While you’re obviously still in the honeymoon phase with Josh Heupel (for good reason!), what are some of the chinks (if any!) you’ve seen in his program that has you a little nervous about the future?
Building off that last comment, I’m fascinated to see Heupel operate next season without having Hendon Hooker in the program. Joe Milton has made big strides, and the eight million dollar man Nico Iamaleava will get his chance to prove himself. But to me, Hooker is making everything tick right now.
The offense is able to overcome some defensive issues right now, will that be the case next year? Tim Banks’ style defensively has meshed well with the lightning-fast offense. However, if Tennessee isn’t scoring 40 points per game next season, what does that look like?
I’m trying to soak up every ounce of this season, but those are a couple of my concerns when forced to look ahead.
3. QB Hendon Hooker has ZERO interceptions still with some pretty nice numbers all around. What are his best and worst traits, and where would you rank him in a power ranking of SEC QBs? 2nd? 3rd? FIRST??
He’s the best quarterback in the SEC, period. That’s a hot take coming at a bunch of Bama fans, I’m fully aware, but the guy has been lights out this season. He beat Florida and went to LSU and blew out the Tigers WITHOUT his best receiver in Cedric Tillman. Through the air or on the ground, he just flat out makes it happen.
Those numbers you referenced should look a lot beefier, but the staff has been very careful to get him out of blowouts early.
Hooker’s best trait comes between his ears. He’s smart and has full command of Tennessee’s offensive attack. He flat out just refuses to make bad decisions as a passer, and operates within Josh Heupel’s tempo to near perfection. He’s not the most gifted passer, but he wins with his preparation and full embrace of Heupel’s system.
If there’s been a knock so far this year, it’s been some spotty accuracy. I’m nitpicking, but he’ll tell you himself too — he’s been a touch off in spots. That’s actually pretty scary to think about, considering how good this offense has been to this point.
4. What receiver does Tennessee like to target for 50/50 sideline balls? It’s basically the only thing that’s worked on Alabama’s defense for two seasons now, so might as well tell us who it is now so we can prepare.
Without a doubt, the favorite 50-50 ball guy is Cedric Tillman. You probably know by now, he’s missed the last two games with a high ankle sprain. We’ll see if he’s able to go on Saturday — it would be a huge loss if he’s not out there. But again, Tennessee has beaten Florida and LSU without him.
Bru McCoy (yeah that Bru McCoy) has been fantastic in his first year for Tennessee. 6-3, 225 pounds, the guy is a powerhouse of a receiver. Tennessee loves getting out to him on the perimeter and letting him go to work in one-on-one situations. He usually gets away from the first defender, too.
While we’re at it, you can’t forget about Jalin Hyatt. You guys saw him have a coming out party in Knoxville two years ago against Alabama, playing in Jim Chaney’s offense. His speed is legit, and you have to account for his ability to get deep at all times, especially with Hooker’s ability to uncork deep bombs.
5. Enough about offense, though. Tennessee is #2 in the country in points per game, but the defense is lagging behind a bit. The Vols are giving up some of the most passing yards per game in the conference, but their rushing defense stats and total points are solid. Is this just a stats phenomena of teams having to pass a lot to keep up, or is it an actual weakness for the defense?
It’s a little bit of a product of how Tennessee plays, as you referenced. The Volunteers go fast and score fast, baiting teams into abandoning the run and going pass heavy.
With that said, Tennessee’s secondary is not good. They’re down a senior starter at cornerback (Warren Burrell) and starting a couple of guys that don’t have much experience. Making matters worse, they could be without starting senior safety Jaylen McCollough this weekend.
Here’s the deal. Tennessee has a pretty good front seven and they’re going to try to win there. They’ll bring seven guys at you and accept the results in either direction. Defensive coordinator Tim Banks is going to come at you hard, and if you beat his blitzes, he’ll tip his cap and move on. Banks eventually beat Pittsburgh playing that game, and completely shut down Jayden Daniels and the LSU offense last week. Florida was more of an adventure.
Tennessee is still finding their footing defensively, but they can still make things tough on opposing offenses. It’s just a matter of whether or not they can get home.
6. Let’s talk a little about the future. Who are some freshmen who are making legitimate contributions and/or splash plays who may be the next crop of superstars in a year or two?
Joshua Josephs is finding some playing time early on as a rotational edge rusher. He’s flashed pretty hard to this point, getting home for a sack last week against LSU. With Byron Young set to move on next year, Josephs is the early favorite to slide into that role.
Offensively, receiver Squirrel White has been easing his way into the offense. He got a little sequence last week and picked up two consecutive touches. He’s explosive and speedy, and the staff is clearly working to find ways to get him involved.
7. If it doesn’t violate superstitions, go ahead and give me your prediction for how this game goes (assuming you know as much about Alabama’s starting QB as the rest of us.... Nothing).
How about I give you two scenarios?
Tennessee beats Bama by 14 if it’s Jalen Milroe.
Tennessee loses to Bama by 10 if it’s Bryce Young.
Young can take advantage of Tennessee’s weaknesses. Milroe plays into Tennessee’s hand.
8. How do you see the rest of this season going for Tennessee?
Clearly this game sets the tone for the rest of the season. If Tennessee pulls this off, I’ll allow myself to talk College Football Playoff (I’m not there quite yet, because you know, it’s still Tennessee after all).
If they lose, we’re likely looking at 10-2 and a New Year’s Six bowl. It’s tough to see them slipping up to South Carolina, Vanderbilt or Missouri. They’re much better than Kentucky, and quite honestly might give Georgia all they want in Athens.
My official prediction is the Sugar Bowl, where Tennessee hasn’t played since the 1990 season.
9. If (IF) the Vols win, what’s the first thing you’re going to do?
I’ll more than likely finish off whatever bottle I’ve been working on during the game, then sit my wife down and make her watch it all back again with me. She (understandably) leaves the house on Saturdays, leaving me to holler, throw things and/or cry in peace. But if this happens, she’ll have to re-live it with me.
We started dating in 2008. Her first game was Phillip Fulmer’s last. So yeah, you get the picture. She’s seen the Kiffin, Dooley, Butch and Pruitt eras. Brutal.
Tennessee might as well be Vanderbilt to her, along with a whole generation of younger college football fans. She’s never seen a good Tennessee team. Hopefully, Josh Heupel, Hendon Hooker and the boys just keep smashing through this schedule and bring us back that old Tennessee feeling. Lord knows we’re due.
Thanks again to Terry Lambert! Go give him a follow on Twitter @TLambertTN if you can handle being associated with any Vol-related.
And Roll Tide!