Whither the coverage of the big game tomorrow, you ask? The problem with analyzing this game is twofold: the first being that we played a garbage team in the first game, and the second being that Tennessee did as well, and, to boot, none of us were able to see it. Therefore, we've enlisted the services of our excellent Tennessee bretheren over at Rocky Top Talk, where Will and Hooper were kind enough to answer some of our questions about the Tennessee football team:
ATQ: When the national media talks about Derek Dooley, they seem to give the idea that the only thing Tennessee fans care about is that he's not Lane Kiffin. That aside, what are the general early impressions of Coach Dooley?
Will: It's true that just about anyone could've come in here and we would've supported him because of who he wasn't. But I think coaching transitions are often pendulum swings, and Dooley was a move back to the Phillip Fulmer end of the spectrum. I'm not sure how well this translates out west, but the fact that Dooley is one of us - he talks like us, he's SEC born and bred - certainly made the transition easier. What he did in two weeks in January in recruiting was really incredible, to keep a class together and to go out and steal four and five star players at the wire. And in an eventful offseason, even those of us who may have disagreed with his disciplinary actions in the bar fight were quieted by the fact that no charges were ever filed. So I think he did everything we could've expected from him in the offseason, while not artificially raising expectations with his mouth the way Kiffin did. So far, so good, and his Nick Saban pedigree makes many of us believe that even if he doesn't win a bunch of games right away, the future of our program is in good hands.
Hooper: As a general rule, new coaches tend to get hired because they are perceived to have something the previous guy lacked. Kiffin was picked because Fulmer had become predictable and stale (and I really do mean that as respectfully as I can). Dooley was picked because Kiffin was a poor cultural fit and his departure left fans wanting somebody who 'related' to the SEC. Dooley is the archetypical Son of the South: charming, smart, well-spoken, notable bloodlines, and with a strong accent.
We have a couple of years to go before we can fairly judge the on-field stuff. Like every other 1-0 team in the country right now, everything is sunshine and buttercups. Things aren't perfect right now (e.g. Will's reference to the Bar Knoxville incident), but things aren't Kiffin. And that's the standard that matters at the moment.
ATQ: Both Oregon and Tennesseee played garbage teams to open the season. While it can be difficult to yield meaningful observations from such games, what overall positives do you take out of the Tennessee-Martin game?
Will: No glaring weaknessses presented themselves, which was a relief. Our defense was very impressive: fast, fundamentally sound, showed a handful of looks (which we assume are just a small percentage of what's actually in the Wilcox pacakge), and gave us hope that they could carry the burden for the offense. The new offensive line had a few five yard brain farts, but no holding penalties, no sacks allowed, and we ran the ball at will. But like you guys, the quality of the opponent means we really don't know anything yet.
Hooper: I was most pleased to see the organization on the sidelines and in the huddles (both offensive and defensive). With new coaches, new players, and new schemes, there was never a time when it seemed that the team didn't know what was going on. Granted, I think the offense ran all of 10 different plays all night long, but at least things went smoothly. There were only one delay of game and two false start penalties on UT, and no penalties were accepted that were worth more than 5 yards (I don't remember if any 10+ yarders were committed and declined).
ATQ: On the flip side, what areas do you look at as areas of concern?
Will: Replacing five starters on the offensive line was probably the number one concern coming in, but this year's line is actually much bigger, and last year we had an effective offense with two walk-ons starting up front, so we'll see how much of an issue that actually turns out to be. Depth is the biggest deal for us with only 70something scholarship players after all the coaching transition, and it's especially an issue at defensive tackle. Montori Hughes is a beast. The other guy who was supposed to start, Marlon Walls, tore his achilles four weeks ago. None of the backup DTs impressed anyone in fall camp, so the two guys who played the most after Hughes against UT Martin were Gerald Williams (who was playing DE two weeks ago) and Victor Thomas (who was playing center three weeks ago).
Hooper: Depth. Our first string is fine, but it's almost like we don't have a second string at the moment. But also, I worry about mental (not physical) fatigue. The team is in great physical shape, but if they overthink the game, they'll tire themselves out between the ears.
ATQ: What are the early thoughts on Matt Simms, especially considering that he'll have to make a few good throws early to open up the run game.
Will: He was mistake-free, which was key. His numbers weren't that impressive, and we didn't really try to go downfield much in the passing game. He saw almost no pressure, and he had a tendency to lock-in on his primary target. He could get away with all of that against UTM, but probably not on Saturday. I think he's going to be a solid game manager - smart kid, good pedigree - but it remains to be seen if he's capable of leading this team in the passing game, especially if Oregon takes away the run.
Hooper: To start with the negatives: he didn't check down during the UT-Martin game, and he had a tendency to overthrow his receivers. While the overthrows prevented interceptions (silver lining, that), I have no doubt that Oregon will keep a safety or two deep just to see if they can get some cheap interceptions. This will be especially true if the running game struggles.
Now the positives: he managed the game very well and never got confused on the field. He has more college experience than his lone UT start would indicate, so he does have knowledge to fall back upon. The players trust him, which really helped execution last week.
ATQ: What do you see as the general strength of the Volunteer football team overall?
Will: On the field, it's linebacker - due to a rash of injuries last year, we have six guys with starting experience, plus converted FB Austin Johnson, who was a monster last week as the backup MLB. That's the only place on the depth chart where we can substitute and lose virtually nothing. We've got a lot of speed on defense, from DE Chris Walker to the secondary, where our safeties are small but quick, and still very violent. On offense, though it's still not fair to say because we haven't seen them get a lot of carries against quality competition, we really like the duo of Tauren Poole and David Oku at tailback - that's who Tennessee should depend on to win the game.
This is a group of guys that have been beat up in more ways than one in their college careers, and especially early in this season, this is a team with a lot of heart and a lot of fight. I think there's a very, very strong bond among the players, because they're the only continuity they have in their careers. We expect to struggle because of depth and inexperience...but we also expect this to be a team that we're proud of, simply because of what they've been through and the way they respond to it.
Hooper: Overall? I'll go away from on-field responses and say that the overall strength is their resolve. Going back to the 2007 season, this team has seen a lot of ugliness: getting drilled at Florida (2007), losing an SEC championship game against LSU that they should have won (2007), watching the home crowd walk out on them at halftime (Florida, 2008), near-mutiny in the locker room (2008), Fulmer's firing (2008), losing to Wyoming at home (2008), getting drilled by Alabama and South Carolina (2008), and to not rehash old news: Lane Kiffin (2009). Yet the team never fell apart. At this point in time, the vast majority of players have more football hardship experience than most college teams. Honestly, it's more like an NFL squad where anything above a .500 season is a success and you're constantly getting matched up against teams that can beat you.
That doesn't mean they'll win, by any means. It just means that they'll give the game their best - something that wasn't happening a few years ago. It's hard to ask for more than that.
A big thanks to the folks over a Rocky Top Talk for taking the time to answer our questions, and for the great hospitality they've shown us on their site all week. I'm sure we're all looking forward to ending the talk and getting to actually play the game tomorrow.