With a little help from Will over at Rocky Top Talk, we have some insight into the Vols leading up to this weekend's matchup. Don't forget to check out my answers to their questions and all things Tennessee football as we get ready for Saturday night.
1. After sitting idle last week, the Vols seem to be getting most of their injured starters back for this weekend's matchup with South Carolina. What player are you most excited to see comeback for Tennessee? And, whose return will have the greatest impact?
The greatest impact will come from (we think) getting all four starting offensive linemen back who were knocked out against Texas A&M and the first quarter of the Alabama game. The Vols had two redshirt freshmen and a true freshman out there against Alabama; we'd like to not do that again against anyone. But the most exciting return will belong to linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr., who went out with an ankle sprain against Virginia Tech in week two. Tennessee lost three of its four best defenders in the first three games; Kirkland is the first of those three to return.
2. On the road, at night in Columbia, South Carolina poses as Tennessee's biggest threat left to permanently derail dreams of a 2016 division championship. Are fans treating this game that way heading into it? Or, is the expectation a win given the Vols recent history against the Gamecocks?
There's no real consensus among Tennessee fans on which of these last four SEC East games will be the most difficult; you can make an argument for each of them. But the Vols never beat Muschamp at Florida, which I think generates plenty of attention from this side of things. I think the Vols expect to win, but the recent history here suggests anything but a blowout. We haven't seen a non-competitive game in this rivalry in this decade and haven't seen anything more than a three-point margin the last four years.
3. Throughout Joshua Dobb's college career, there's been a lot of hype around his potential. Has he lived up to it this year, been a disappointment, or does he fall somewhere in between?
Dobbs' start at South Carolina two years ago was really the beginning of a run these Vols are still on, going 18-7 with Dobbs as the full-time starter since then as opposed to 36-46 in the previous 6.5 years. The Vols didn't ask Dobbs to do much downfield last year, which led to the Vols earning a more conservative identity that cost them in several close games. This year he's been given more freedom in the passing game, and as a result he's thrown more interceptions but also landed more big plays and generally improved as a passer. He's been rushed constantly with injuries on the offensive line, but still managed to be an effective passer against good defenses both on the run and from the pocket. The only disappointment with him this year is the number of times he's fumbled.
4. Running back Jalen Hurd is back, but Alvin Kamara is out. Which one does Dobbs and the Vols offense rely on more to move the ball successfully?
Hurd has always gotten the majority of the carries, but Kamara has a much higher risk/reward factor. Jalen Hurd is going to get his cloud of dust yardage. With Kamara out it will be interesting to see if Tennessee changes the way they use Hurd at all, or just gets John Kelly into the flow at running back. The Vols throw to Kamara 15% of the time; last year he led SEC running backs in target rate. The adjustment in the passing game might be the most noticeable difference in the offense.
5. Is the fanbase still fully behind head coach Butch Jones are is some disgruntlement starting to grow following back-to-back losses?
I don't think anyone was or is disgruntled about the Texas A&M game; no coach in the world can save you from seven turnovers and the Vols still almost won. The Alabama game was certainly unpleasant, but I still think most fans understand what kind of depth chart the Vols were dealing with when so many players were unavailable due to injury. There was some lingering anxiety at halftime of the Florida game, but the way the Vols emphatically snapped that streak then doubled down with such a memorable win over Georgia, I think it's clear Butch Jones is Tennessee's guy and fans both expect his team to take care of business down the stretch and are on board with him going forward.
6. A prediction and expectation for the matchup this weekend.
I don't expect anything easy, but I do expect Tennessee to look more like the team we saw against Texas A&M than the one we saw against Alabama. I think a healthy defense can take advantage of South Carolina's offense, though they'll probably still give up a big play or two. And I think Tennessee's offense will continue to look to body-blow teams into opportunities to land their own big plays as the game goes on. I think the Vols get and convert enough of those opportunities to crack Carolina's 30-point barrier just barely. I'm taking the Vols 30-17.