KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The Tennessee players and coaches agree, the Vols will be entering into a hornet’s nest of sorts on Saturday, a desperate Georgia football team awaiting them.
The Bulldogs (3-1, 1-1 SEC) are coming off a 45-14 curb-stomping at the hands of Ole Miss, and a win over Tennessee (4-0, 1-0) is a must to keep SEC East Division hopes alive.
The Vols are coming off perhaps their best half of football at Neyland Stadium of this millennium, but it could ultimately prove for naught if UT can’t take control of the division with a win over Georgia.
Here are 5 key things for Tennessee this week:
1. Faster starts
Tennessee has been outscored 34-10 in the first quarter of games this season and 60-44 in the first half.before outscoring opponents 80-24 in the second halves.
Getting off to a slow start could come back to bite the Vols on the road, where it’s considerably more difficult to shift the momentum.
2. Short yardage package
The Vol have a 240-pound tailback in Jalen Hurd and one of the most effective running quarterbacks in the nation in Josh Dobbs.
But Tennessee was unable to punch the football into the end zone last Saturday after setting up with a first-and-goal at the Florida 2. Hurd, running out of a shotgun formation, was unable to generate enough momentum to score on two carries inside the 2.
3. Big-play secondary
The Vols have just two interceptions this season, and they gave up pass plays of 20, 36, 43 and 51 yards in the first half alone against Florida.
UT defensive coordinator Bob Shoop utilizes an aggressive press-man scheme that enables him to employ a myriad of pressure packages — provided the defensive backs can play tight, man coverage effectively.
Shoop will continue to move players around until he finds the right combination to fit his proven scheme.
4. Steady nerves
Tennessee remains a work in progress, in terms of the leadership within the team growing.
Remember, the Vols won only two of their previous 16 games before Butch Jones was hired, so learning to win has been a work in progress.
The six dropped passes in the first half served as evidence this group is still learning how to get itself ready to play big games.
5. Emerging heroes
Everyone knew Dobbs could lead from the quarterback position and Derek Barnett would be a force at defensive end, but few would have expected Colton Jumper and Tyler Byrd to emerge as key players against Florida.
Jumper led the Vols with eight tackles in the win over Florida, and Josh Malone said the offense was going through Byrd in the first half when the older, more experienced receivers and tight ends were dropping passes.
One mark of a title team is that different players emerge and assume key roles when needed as the season progresses.