As per annual tradition, I talk with our frenemy, Terry Lambert, over at Rocky Top Talk ahead of the Third Saturday in October. You can go check out the other half of our conversation on their site.
1. So, 5-1 in the SEC isn’t a shabby start! That loss to Florida really looms large, though. How much of that loss do you view as a one-off kind of thing, or how much is it an outward symptom of issues on Tennessee’s squad?
That loss can pretty much be boiled down to a truly horrific second quarter. Tennessee jumped out to a 7-0 lead, then somehow managed to give up 26 unanswered before halftime to a really average Florida team. It was an out of character moment for this defense, which has been one of the best in the country all year long.
The lasting concern there was the performance on the road. Tennessee hasn’t had a road test since, so that’s weighing heavily on my mind heading into this weekend. It was also a pretty good example of what happens when Tennessee can’t run the ball and has to rely Joe Milton exclusively. The results… well, you saw the final score. They really can’t afford not to establish the run, and they certainly aren’t prepped to play from behind.
2. From an outsider perspective, Joe Milton seems... Underwhelming. Especially following on the heels of PhD graduate Hendon Hooker. What is the Volunteer fanbase’s patience level with Milton right now? How strong are the calls for Nico Iamaleava?
This is a pretty interesting situation. We all thought we had Joe Milton figured out, and then the dude comes out and torches Clemson in the Orange Bowl and looks like a totally different player. That created a false sense of hope, and kinda set the hype train in motion for the summer.
Then the season started, and it’s pretty much been the same ole Joe. (To be totally fair, his receivers have struggled with drops all year, and generally just haven’t been on the same page with Milton so far.) Going from Hooker to anyone would be tough, considering the level of mastery Hendon had of this offense. But Milton isn’t even in the same universe.
The calls are starting to get louder for a change, but most understand that doing it heading into Tuscaloosa isn’t the time to do it. It would make a lot more sense if Tennessee dropped a game or two and officially dropped out of the East/CFP race, which could obviously happen this weekend. Nico is the future, and it wouldn’t make much sense to me to struggle down the stretch with Milton. But I’m not sure the staff feels the same.
3. Please tell me about this Squirrel White guy. That is the MOST Tennessee name ever. Is he the one to take over the “torching Alabama” duty from Jalin Hyatt?
He committed to Tennessee as a 3-star prospect outside of the top 500, but the Vols had to hold off both Georgia and Auburn late for his signature, so I sort of figured the kid was legit. Heupel hasn’t really played too many freshmen so far at Tennessee, but he forced his way onto the field pretty early, then showed out in the Orange Bowl after Hyatt opted out.
Unfortunately, White’s downfield production hasn’t been there this year, which goes back to Milton’s struggles. He got loose against South Carolina, but outside of that it’s been mostly short stuff. Tennessee will work him in the screen game, just getting the ball out to him quickly and letting him go to work. That’s been effective, but it’s not exactly how I had it drawn up in my head.
The good news for Tennessee is that defenses still have to respect a guy with 4.3 speed, paired with a guy who can launch it 80+. That threat alone takes some pressure off the run game, which ranks fifth in the nation, and that formula is doing just enough to keep Tennessee winning for now.
4. James Pearce has all of the sacks. Meanwhile, Alabama gives even more than all of the sacks. Seems like a match made in heaven. Tell us about Pearce’s game, and do you think he doubles his season output in sacks just by rushing our dysfunctional left tackle situation? And if Pearce doesn’t ever rush that edge, who is Tennessee going to use to relentlessly blitz the left side and get 4 sacks?
Man, as a Tennessee fan I haven’t gotten to say this very much — this dude looks like a legit future top five pick. On3 actually went out on an island and ranked him as a 5-star prospect, and they’ve certainly been proven right so far in his true sophomore season. 6-5, 240+, and has as good of a fastball off of the edge as anyone in the country. He wins nearly instantly out of his stance, able to bend and turn the corner quickly.
He’s taken over a handful of games so far this season, nearly single-handedly shutting down Spencer Rattler and Max Johnson. PFF has him as the second-highest ranked edge rusher in the country, leading the nation in pressures. He was credited with nine and seven pressures in his last two games, both times earning him SEC defensive lineman of the week honors.
Pearce typically does rush the left side, but they move him around quite a bit. Senior Tyler Baron, who is more of a power guy, has really come on this year. Joshua Josephs is another name to know. Tennessee has REALLY focused on this position over the last couple of recruiting cycles, and we’re finally seeing the results.
I’m interested to see what a mobile Milroe can do — they’ll definitely have him on the run.
5. Tennessee’s secondary isn’t doing too great on paper, and that’s with Texas A&M being allergic to the forward pass last week boosting the numbers. Is this a pass defense that’s better on film than the stats are bearing out? Or is it something Alabama will be able to take advantage of (knowing that Jalen Milroe only completes passes longer than 20 yards as a rule).
Outside of a couple of weird moments against Austin Peay and UTSA, I actually think this group has played really well this year. They definitely haven’t faced that big of a challenge just yet though.
It’s a bunch of seniors who have years worth of starting experience at this point across the board. Kamal Hadden has bounced back after some tough moments, Gabe Jeudy-Lally has been solid coming over from BYU. Wesley Walker has been great since moving back to a safety spot. Tamarion McDonald is always active in his STAR role. I wouldn’t say any of these guys are standout players, but they’ve certainly been more comfortable playing with a legitimate pass rush this year. They haven’t been left on islands nearly as much now that Tennessee can get home with four, which obviously helps.
All of that said, they’re certainly beatable. They haven’t faced the caliber of athletes that ‘Bama is gonna throw at them. The only thing you can really compare to here is the South Carolina game, where Rattler really struggled with pressure. We’ll see if a better receiving core can remedy that.
6. Are there any freshmen standing out who look like future All-SEC or even All-American players?
Touched on this a little above, but we really haven’t seen much playing time for the freshmen. Probably the one that’s played the most is a guy that you guys know — Arion Carter. The 4-star linebacker stayed in-state, picking Tennessee over Alabama, and has looked like a stud from day one of camp. He’s been forced into about 20 snaps a game after veteran linebacker Keenan Pili went down with an injury in the first game of the season.
Obviously you’ll be hearing about Nico Iamaleava soon, who was On3’s top-ranked player in the 2023 cycle. The quarterback job is his starting next season, maybe even sooner if things play out a certain way. He offered a couple flashes back in the spring game, but we haven’t seen much live action since. We’ll find out what Tennessee has there soon.
7. Two part prediction question: Does Tennessee win this game to make it two in a row over Alabama? And now shoot your shot: Would you, personally, consider it an “upset” if Tennessee wins?
1. No, they don’t.
If Tennessee had literally anything working down the field, my answer would change. But Milton is severely limiting this offense right now. They’ve been winning with the run game and playing really good defense, but I think that formula only gets them so far. That’s not to say Milton can’t change course, he’s certainly capable, but he hasn’t shown us any consistency to this point.
If this game is in Knoxville, my answer might change too. Neyland is absolutely nuts these days, with Tennessee finally getting back to the national stage. But that performance in Gainesville has me spooked.
Alabama 24, Tennessee 16.
2. Yes, I would.
I know Alabama has had their struggles, but when you haven’t done something (winning in Tuscaloosa) since 2003, that’s still an upset in my book.
8. At the end of the year, what would a successful season look like for you?
9-3 and a bowl win would be fine for most Tennessee fans this year. It’s pretty clear this team is lacking the upside of last year’s group, although we can all respect the coaching job that’s happening despite the quarterback issues.
Tennessee probably has the toughest finishing schedule of anyone left — at Bama, at Kentucky, Georgia, at Missouri. Winning two of those is the expectation, anything else is gravy.