I got together with the guys at the fine SBN Tennessee blog Rocky Top Talk to chat about this weekend's game. Here are their answers to my questions; I'm sure you'll enjoy the insights these folks provide. I'll provide a link to RTT later today so you can see my answers to their questions.
1. Tell us briefly about Derek Dooley. It's obviously really early to evaluate his performance, especially considering the personnel problems he inherited and the number of injuries you've suffered. I'm sure you guys have some thoughts on what kind of job he's doing, though--what are they? Is he doing the right things to bring Tennessee back to the top half of the SEC within the next two seasons? (Answered by Joel)
Tennessee is 2-5 and 0-4 in the SEC, and despite the extenuating circumstances you mentioned, we're beginning to see just a bit of a divergence of opinion on Dooley, so I can't speak for all Vol fans, of course. Speaking for myself, though, I think the situation he inherited exlains nearly everything, and we wouldn't be complaining about the other stuff much if everything else was okay. Dooley has improved special teams a bit, which had been a thorn in the side of Tennessee fans for many seasons. Other than that, though, the evidence just isn't in. Before the season, most Vol fans expected to be right where we are right now, but the record and the team's performance so far makes finding proof of ability or progress difficult. Dooley does speak his mind about the team's deficiencies, so it's not like he is clueless or anything, and he seems to be recruiting around team needs fairly well. It's just that fixing everything all at once isn't feasible, and it takes time to start seeing the results of a complete overhaul. So bottom line, it's simply too early to render a verdict right now.
2. Considering that Tauren Poole is having a good season, I was surprised to learn that Tennessee is moving the ball much better through the air than on the ground. Why is that the case, and how will Tennessee attack the Gamecocks' defense? (Answered by Hooper)
You could answer that in a few ways. First, Tennessee has been playing from behind for a lot of the season - especially in the second half. That leads to a more pass-happy attack in an attempt to save time while catching up. That also leads to more prevent defense looks, and Tennessee has gained a notable margin of its total yardage against such defenses, especially in the Oregon and Georgia games.
Second, Offensive Coordinator Jim Chaney is inherently from a spread-to-pass background, having very successfully run such offenses at Wyoming in the 90s and at Purdue with both Brees and Orton at quarterback. He's tempered somewhat, but it's a bit in his blood. I don't personally think this is a big deal for playcalling, but it's something to consider.
Third, Tennessee has to be very careful with Poole. He's a tough guy, but there's no real depth behind him. David Oku isn't a power back and he hasn't had a good season so far. Rajion Neal is looking good, but is a true freshman and may not have all the schemes down yet. Toney Williams is back from injury, but has been very minimally used so far. The point is that, if Poole ever got injured, we'd be hurting badly at running back, so I think that the coaches may be limiting his carries a bit in order to have him (and some semblance of balance) throughout the season.
Fourth (and probably most importantly), defenses stack the box against Poole. The basic modus operandi of our opposition had been to place 8 in the box and send as many as they dare. Sometimes it's a run blitz and sometimes it's a pass blitz, but there are a lot of big bodies coming at the line, which encourages more hot reads and more one-on-one coverage. That's also why Tennessee has given up nearly 30 sacks so far.
3. Carolina fans all remember Daniel Lincoln's leg from 2007. Lincoln is doubtful for this game. What kind of effect would not having him present for the Vols? (Answered by Hooper)
Unfortunately, a bad effect. The Daniel Lincoln you remember from last year and, to a lesser degree, 2007, is no more; he was fully healthy to start the season and was nailing long field goals with great consistency. The backup, true freshman Michael Palardy, has the talent to do the same, but has pulled his two longest attempts on the year. (I think it's nerves.) Palardy definitely has the leg for 50+ yard field goals, but hasn't made one yet so we'll be a little more nervous than we'd like. The upside to Palardy is that he's pretty competitive and really seems to be gunning for the job, so maybe he'll have worked on the overkicking issue and have it straightened out.
The one tactical change is that Tennessee might be more willing to go for fourth from that gray area of long field goals. Hopefully we at least get far enough down the field for that to be a reasonable question.
4. Name one player you'd love to have from the Gamecocks roster and tell us why. (Answered by Joel)
The knee-jerk response here would be to take Alshon Jeffery, but frankly, I doubt he'd be as effective on our team as he is for yours right now. Tennessee's problems on offense are many right now, but I think it mostly comes down to the fact that the offensive line is about as young and inexperienced as you'll ever find. Without the line carrying its own weight, the rest of the offense suffers, and simply getting the ball to a receiver is a challenge. So if we could trade units, I'd trade our o-line for yours. These guys will eventually be good, so I don't know that I'd trade them three years from now for anything, but this year, they're just young and learning, and that's a liability for the offense.
But if I'm limited to only one player, I'd take Travian Robertson. We have almost as many problems on defense as we do on offense, and it all starts with having too few big bodies in the middle of the defensive line. I know Devin Taylor has more sacks and tackles for loss, but we have decent ends. Instead, we are desperate for 300 pounds of havoc-wreaking talent in the middle.
(Addendum by Hooper) I'm going to go with the 'very large values of one' approach here and say that we'd want: your best D-tackle, your best corner, and your center. And your second best D-tackle. Seriously, we're desperately thin over here. Think Knights Hospitaller on Malta, only without the cool fortifications.
5. After a decade of blowout UT wins in the 90s, the 2000s featured several good games between Carolina and Tennessee, most of which Tennessee won. What are your favorite memories from this series in recent years? (Answered by Will)
I think the game in 2000 was one of the most important in the series in the last ten years; that was Carolina's first real chance to beat us since 1992, and it was Casey Clausen's second start as a true freshman. The fourth quarter drive he led to give the Vols the 17-14 win was a huge confidence builder for him, as he went on to lead several other fourth quarter come from behind wins on the road. I also think the 2007 game is the best worst-played game I've ever seen - we both made so many mistakes, neither of us deserved to win, but that game had all kinds of drama in the fourth quarter and overtime, especially since it had essentially become the SEC East Championship Game just a few hours before kickoff when Georgia beat Florida. Anytime we can beat Spurrier with something meaningful on the line, we'll take it.