ATHENS - If you're having trouble deciding who to pick on Saturday, get in line. I've been torn all week, vacillating between going with Georgia because of superior experience or Tennessee because of homefield advantage.
So let's delve further into the matchup by learning more about the Volunteers from someone who has been watching them every day. Andrew Gribble covers the Vols for the Knoxville News-Sentinel, and is also one of the panel members on our weekly SEC power poll. (He was also a bit busy on Thursday after Barbara Dooley took exception to something she thought he said, but which Andrew did not.)
Many thanks for Andrew's help. As you will see below, he didn't hold much back in his answers, and I'm sure you'll find them insightful.
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Here you go, the view from Knoxville:
It's only Derek Dooley's second year, and he inherited a lot of issues. Is it fair to say he's got a talented, but very young team?
Gribble: I think you pretty much summed it up right there. No need for me to expound any further.
OK, I'll talk about it a little more. Dooley obviously inherited a mess when he got here. What's been perhaps overlooked, though, is the crazy good work he did in shoring up that initial recruiting class. Not only did he preserve the signature of Tyler Bray, but he also landed wide receivers Justin Hunter and Da'Rick Rogers - I'm sure you haven't heard anything about Rogers this week - center James Stone and running back Rajion Neal. All four of those players are major pieces to the foundation Dooley is trying to build. Then you look at what Dooley and Co. did this previous year. Freshmen linebackers A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt are starters and DeAnthony Arnett will have a prominent role going forward now that Hunter is out for the season.
With all this young talent, though, is a largely non-existent group of upperclassmen. The senior class is a small group of Phillip Fulmer recruits that were considered to be apart of the worst recruiting class, at that time, in Tennessee's past 20 years. And then Lane Kiffin's class of 2009, though widely heralded at the time, came and topped it by being quite possibly the worst recruiting class major college football has seen during this generation. You might think I'm exaggerating, but if you track the defections, the lack of production from the remaining members and all the arrests and bad publicity piled up by the members, and it has to at least be in the discussion.
So, yes, the Vols are young and are playing with house money at this stage of Derek Dooley's time here. Next year is really when the clock starts.
Tyler Bray's stats speak for themselves. But how much do you think the competition he's had since he became the starter figure into that? Will Georgia's defense potentially be the best he's faced in his young career so far?
Gribble: Competition notwithstanding, the numbers Bray has put up so far in his career are simply remarkable. The one that blows my mind the most is that he's thrown for 300 yards or more in six of his nine career starts. I don't care who you're playing; that's good. Of course, though, the competition has had a hand in making the game look far too easy for him. Last year, Bray faced the nation's 116th (Memphis), 103rd (Ole Miss), 75th (Vanderbilt), 14th (Kentucky) and 50th (North Carolina) ranked pass defenses. Only against the Tar Heels was Bray challenged, and it was no coincidence that he threw four interceptions.
Going forward, Bray is definitely going to look not as flawless as he has thus far and is going to throw some interceptions. I've always thought he was going to be a guy that threw a bunch of picks because he's such a risktaker (I hate the word gunslinger). But he's still a really, really good quarterback. At this point of the season, I'll say Georgia's defense will provide as much of a test as Florida's did.
Da'Rick Rogers has looked good. But other than Rogers, how many weapons does the Volunteer offense have in the absence of Justin Hunter? Is the running game (ranked dead last in the SEC) really that bad?
Gribble: Starting with the running game, I don't really see it getting any better, and it only has something to do with the young offensive line. Tauren Poole might have run for more than 1,000 yards last season, but he's not an elite running back. Freshman Marlin Lane isn't developing as fast as someone like Isaiah Crowell, so he hasn't been the answer, either.
The Vols are going to live and die with Bray and his receivers. Rogers is certainly very good at catching the football. He, of course, had the capability to be so much better when Hunter was on the field, but that's a moot point now. Rogers is the guy going forward, and I see him finishing with some first-team All-SEC-type numbers. But he's not going to have it as easy as he did last week against Buffalo. The Bulls, for some reason, didn't feel the need to double-team him. SEC teams will. That means players like Zach Rogers, DeAnthony Arnett and Vincent Dallas will have to make plays. Of the three, Arnett probably has the highest ceiling, but he hasn't shown that he can do much more than catch short passes as of yet. Really, the guy who will have to produce more is tight end Mychal Rivera. He had no problem finding wide open spaces when Hunter was on the field and even when he went down, Rivera was able to put up a solid game against Florida. By the end of the year, I see Rogers leading the team in yards and then a big gap between him and Rivera.
There's a lot of inexperience on the defense. Is the run defense the biggest problem?
Gribble: This defense's identity is hard to find. I really don't know what it is yet. There are only a couple of things I've been able to deduce so far. Going from front to back, the defensive line isn't as bad as many of us thought it would be, the same goes for the linebackers, and the secondary isn't as good as many imagined. The reason why I have a tough time making conclusions is because of the competition to date. The two good offenses UT has faced, Florida and Cincinnati, are so unique and different from the rest of the SEC it's probably unfair to draw conclusions.
The one big problem for this group is mental breakdowns that result in what coaches here call "catastrophe plays." The Vols have surrendered a touchdown of at least 65 yards or longer in all four games. Also, because Janzen Jackson is no longer here, and because Prentiss Waggner is playing out of position at safety, this team lacks a true defensive playmaker. Maggitt is on his way toward becoming one, but he's still a freshman and makes tons of mistakes.
Special teams looks like it's been a concern for Tennessee. What's been the biggest issue there - and what has actually gone well?
Gribble: It's been more than a concern. It's been a disaster. Not many teams can claim to have punts blocked in back to back games, but the Vols sure can after their past two. The heart of the issue is the overwhelming amount of youth. To top it off, some of the good young players who were originally envisioned to have prominent special teams roles, such as Maggitt and A.J. Johnson, have been called to duty on offense or defense, so their roles have been minimized on teams. Also, I was convinced that Da'Rick Rogers would eventually break a kickoff return for a touchdown, but he's no longer on the unit because coaches want to keep him as safe as possible in light of the Hunter injury.
Piling on even more, kicker Michael Palardy has been inconsistent both on kickoffs and field goals. He missed an important one against Florida and even his makes have looked ugly.
But hey, it's not all bad. Kickoff coverage, despite the short kicks, has been one of the best units in the country for a second consecutive season. Freshman Devrin Young, a Knoxville boy who was only recruited by one other SEC school, is back from a broken collarbone and appears to be the spark UT hasn't had on punts and kicks in years. He took back two big returns against Buffalo and looks like a natural fit. Of course, he also fumbled a kick return in the second half. It pretty much typified UT's season on special teams.
In the end, what would you say the two or three keys to the outcome of this game will be?
Gribble: How the Tennessee offensive line handles the massive bodies on Georgia's defensive line will go a long way in determining Saturday's outcome. It was ugly watching the Vols try to match up against the Gators' line in Gainesville, especially when James Stone couldn't even snap the ball properly because he was terrified of Jaye Howard. I'll also be watching out for how the Vols plan to contain Crowell. The Vols did a good job of bottling up Cincinnati's Isaiah Pead a few weeks ago, but they looked awful trying to wrap up Rainey and Demps against the Gators. Finally, I don't think Tennessee's secondary can survive Aaron Murray having all the time in the world to pick it apart. That means the Vols' defensive line will have to generate some sort of pass rush and at least put Murray on his back a few times.
Many thanks to Andrew, and I'll be sure to say hi to him for all of you.