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Opponent Q&A: Tennessee

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Talkin’ Vols.

Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome back to the Opponent Q&A series, where we have a friendly chat with a sister blog to get their perspective about what we can expect this weekend. Many thanks to Rocky Top Talk’s Nick Carner, who sat down with us to provide some thoughtful insight on how things are going in Vol Country.

Both South Carolina and Tennessee are playing under first-year head coaches this season, which is an interesting aspect of this game. How would you grade Josh Heupel’s performance so far? What’s the general mood in Knoxville?

Hmmm. I probably give Heupel a solid B, but his stock keeps ticking up. It’s taken the team a bit to find its footing, but fans are seeing a pretty steady, all-around progression. The Vols let one slip away against Pittsburgh and couldn’t hang for a full game against Florida, but against Missouri, they played mostly mistake-free and hit the big plays they’d been missing the first couple weeks of the season.

We’ll see how this weekend goes — it would be pretty on-brand for Tennessee to take a step back and play poorly against South Carolina for no real discernible reason. But fans have slowly been buying into what Josh Heupel is selling since week two, and there’s some authentic and reasonably-placed optimism around the football team for the first time since the end of 2019 when Pruitt led that squad to five-straight wins plus a bowl-game victory over Indiana.

So uh, that was some kind of offensive explosion against Missouri last week. On the other hand, the Tigers have one of the worst defenses in all of college football. What do you think is the realistic expectation for the UT offense moving forward?

I mean, yeah — the stats from the Missouri game were impressive, and it was fun to see the team executing at a high level. But I don’t think any reasonable Vol fan (oxymoron...?) expects that to be the norm this year. If at the end of the year, Tennessee grades out average-ish compared to the rest of the SEC, I’d be happy. The bar ain’t real high around here these days.

South Carolina has been pretty stout defensively, currently fielding a top-25 unit in multiple categories and ranking in the top 10 in a few others. While the Vols’ offense seems to be surging under the steady hand of Hendon Hooker, what are weak spots that the Gamecocks could take advantage of?

All eyes should be on Tennessee’s offensive line and its matchup with the South Carolina defensive line. The Vols were down starting center Cooper Mays and backup OL Kingston Harris against Missouri and still had a record-setting day. Neither Mays nor Harris are listed in the depth chart for this Saturday’s game. In my estimation, the best way to mitigate the sticky-handed Gamecock defense is to lean on the run game. But without its five best OL, that’s likely an “easier said than done,” type situation for UT this weekend.

Speaking of offense, South Carolina’s has been moribund, to say the least. What’s the biggest area of strength (and therefore concern for SC) that Tennessee brings to the table defensively?

Tennessee’s been better defensively than most, including myself, expected, given the host of outgoing transfers and depth issues in the front seven. But at this juncture, the Vols are in the SEC’s top-5 best rushing defenses and have allowed more than 100 yards on the ground just once, against Florida. That’s surely subject to change with the schedule about to stiffen up, but keeping South Carolina’s running-back quartet in check would serve Tennessee well for the inherent reason of usually surrendering fewer yards gives your team a better chance to win, but it also helps Tennessee’s defense stay on the field less, as most long, sustained offensive drives are rooted in positive running plays.

Finally, care to make a prediction?

Imma go with Tennessee getting the win — but I think it’s going to be a close game. Things clicked for the Vols last weekend for a number of reasons, but among the most important was committing just two penalties and the offense hitting a few explosive plays. Those two facets could easily swing the other way, then throw in a Tennessee turnover (or two) and who knows what could happen. The Vols could real quick find themselves in a dog fight with some chickens.

All in all, I think folks are reading too much into Tennessee’s recent, resounding win over Mizzou and simultaneously putting too much stock in South Carolina’s not-so-great performance against Troy. If you take a few steps back, this game looks like it should be closer than the current 10-ish points that Vegas has the Vols favored by.