Each week we throw six flags over Tennessee after a Vols’ game.
The Green Flags are for “good to go.’’
The Red Flags: “Stop it!’’
- First-half defense against Kentucky. The Vols held Kentucky to 75 yards on 25 snaps (3.0 yards per play). That is a strong performance against anybody. Even though UT trailed 17-7 at halftime, it wasn’t the fault of the defense.
- Running back Eric Gray. The sophomore rushed for 128 yards on 24 carries. He had nine straight carries on a 14-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that cut Kentucky’s lead to 17-7, showing strength and stamina. Gray is averaging 74.5 rush yards per game. In a 10-game season, he could flirt with an 800-yard season and 1,200 yards from scrimmage.
- Linebacker Henry To’o To’o. Invariably, if you see a solid tackle or a stop behind the line on a run play, look for No. 11. It’s likely the sophomore stud from California. To’o To’o is the leader of the defense. And while he has struggled at times against the pass, he has done well against the run, having recorded 31 tackles, five behind the line.
- Quarterback play. Tennessee had three interceptions on three consecutive possessions (and 10 plays) against Kentucky, two of which were turned for touchdowns. It’s painfully apparent that UT will not beat many decent teams with Jarrett Guarantano at quarterback. You can blame Guarantano, but you can also blame the UT coaching staff for not recruiting over him. UT’s inability to find a difference maker at quarterback will prevent the program from contending in the East Division.
- Effort. Coach Jeremy Pruitt was disgusted with the offense’s effort to tackle on Kentucky’s two pick sixes, especially with a not-so-fleet linebacker going 85 yards. And after a really good first half, UT’s defensive didn’t put up a lot of fight in the second half as Kentucky marched 76 yards (remember, the Cats had 75 total in the first half) on its first possession of the third quarter to all but put the game away. In the second half, Kentucky had an 11-play TD drive, a nine-play field goal drive, a seven-play TD drive and ran out the clock with 11 runs as the Cats rubbed UT’s face in the dirt.
- Discipline. Tennessee had 10 penalties against Georgia. It had six more against Kentucky, including an unsportsmanlike conduct infraction on Jeremy Pruitt and a kick to the groin from receiver Ramel Keyton. UT continues to prove it can’t beat an above-average team by shooting itself in the foot – or kicking an opponent in a sensitive spot.
So what must Tennessee do to beat – or compete – with Alabama?
Here are three keys:
- The Vols must shorten the game, limit the number of possessions. In the second-half of two games this season (Missouri and Kentucky) the opponent had just four possessions. If UT can limit Alabama to fewer than 10 possessions in the game, that would give the Vols a fighting chance.
- Tennessee can’t get torched by the Tide’s wideouts. Alabama’s DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle each had over 160 receiving yards against Georgia, which has the best defense and best secondary in the SEC. If UT plays only man-to-man in the secondary, the Tide will have a field day. UT must mix in some zone, disguise defenses, affect quarterback Mac Jones and not let wideouts get behind the secondary. Yes, I know, that’s easier said that done. Just ask Georgia.
- Run the ball. While I think UT’s offensive line has underachieved thus far – especially in pass protection – the Vols must have a measure of success running the football. That doesn’t mean 200 yards, but it does mean avoiding negative runs, converting on third-and-short, and breaking tackles. While I like Gray and Ty Chandler, they haven’t been consistently elusive or shed tacklers as often as needed. If you can run with some success, that takes pressure off the quarterback. With UT’s quarterback quandary, you can’t ask anyone to throw 40 times in a game, especially against Alabama.