Football time means it's praise your opponent time, and our coach will glady get it started:
"They've won a championship. They've gone to the playoffs...We expect them to play their best. And their best is good enough to beat us."
We're not here to say that we shouldn't take Tennessee-Martin seriously. If I was an Alabama or Florida fan, right now I'd be coming up with things to be worried about for San Jose State or Miami (OH), no doubt. But for the Vols, this game may be the only time all year we can entertain the idea that we are, without question, the better team.
Is Tennessee-Martin's best good enough to beat us? Let's explore.
We looked at UT-Martin's schedule yesterday, and noted the common ground: the Vols beat Tiger High 56-28 (and led 49-7 in the third quarter), and Tiger High beat the Skyhawks 41-14 (and led 31-0 in the third quarter). Let's take a look at what UTM has done against FBS opponents recently:
- 2009 at Memphis: 41-14 L
- 2008 at South Florida: 56-7 L
- 2008 at Auburn: 37-20 L
- 2007 at Southern Miss: 35-13 L
- 2006 at Ohio: 29-3 L
- 2005 at Arkansas State: 56-7 L
- 2004 at Western Michigan: 42-0 L
- 2003 at Arkansas State: 63-6 L
This is not a program that's found any success against any FBS team. Martin did go 8-2 against FCS foes two years ago, but last year the Skyhawks were 5-6, and must replace former South Carolina transfer Cade Thompson at QB, plus their top two rushers. Is their best good enough to beat us? I'm not sure, but I am sure this is an average FCS team that's replacing its quarterback and running back, who has lost to their last seven mid-major FBS foes by an average of 46-7.
The shining beacon of hope is the 2008 game at Auburn, still fresh in the minds of upperclassmen on the Skyhawks' current roster. UTM scored to tie that game at 20-20 with nine minutes to play in the third quarter, before Auburn pulled away by scoring the game's final 17 points. Through two and a half quarters, it was a similar situation against a somewhat similar opponent to what we saw against Wyoming that year: a mid-November game with a coach on his way out and a team struggling to find offense and a reason to care, against an opponent playing up to the moment and the opportunity. It's easy for me to understand why that happened to Auburn.
It's also apparently easy for current UTM players to use a 17 point loss to that Auburn team as reason why they're going to give us a run for our money:
"A lot of people back home think we have a shot because of all the mess that is going on over there. I think we have a better shot than what we did against Auburn (in 2008)." - WR Stephen Shriver (from Maryville)
And look, those guys are supposed to believe they can beat us. It's also September 1, and everybody's undefeated. But all the history and the facts suggest this team and this program does not have what it takes to compete with an FBS team, let alone beat one. Even lowly Tennessee-Knoxville.
This is the one game on the schedule where we need to do more than just win. You can't get an inflated opinion about our team or any individual player based on what they do against this team (see: Kentucky, Western) - we won't find out how good we are right now until Oregon and Florida reveal it. But you can hit the panic button if any glaring red flags show up against a vastly inferior opponent. The main thing the Vols need to do is hit the Skyhawks early and often - the longer you allow a massive underdog to believe they've actually got a chance to win, the more dangerous they become. Kill their hopes early, and we can all relax and enjoy...because Saturday may be the last time we're doing either of those two things for a while...
So outside of a victory by a comfortable margin, what specifically do we want to see on Saturday (aside from the shiny new parts of our stadium)? Here are my top five to watch for:
Honorable Mention: Justin Hunter
He's not a starter, and doesn't play a position of need coming in...but the combination of hype and drama that have surrounded him for the past three weeks has me very curious about this one. Will the Vols make an effort to get him involved, or will we hide him away until Oregon shows up? And if we do get him the ball, will he do something to bring the crowd to his feet? If he doesn't, no big deal...but he's pulled an upset and become the most exciting freshman to watch.
5. Eric Gordon & Marsalis Teague
They'll play together in the nickel package, and situationally at other times next to Art Evans at corner. And they're both complete unknowns: Gordon is a redshirt freshman who worked hard to lock down the job in the spring and summer, and then Dooley moved Teague to corner four weeks ago, and the sophomore immediately pushed him. Both of these guys had a ton of hype on signing day in 2009, and they may both get a chance to show it right away. Again, given the opponent an interception would be nice, but I'm more interested to see if they can maintain solid coverage and not get beat right away, despite their inexperience.
4. Gerald Williams & Malik Jackson
The sack was apparently full of bad potatoes: with Marlon Walls down, the depth chart at defensive tackle now has Montori Hughes at one spot, and then the next two guys just recently started playing the position. Along with Victor Thomas, who moved back over from the offensive line, Gerald Williams slides inside to tackle in an effort to get the Vols' best four linemen on the field. Jackson, who was a pass rush specialist at USC, should see a ton of action now with Ben Martin hurt and Williams at tackle. We want to love this guy because we took him from Kiffin. Will he show us something right away? And what percentage of the total snaps will Williams play at tackle - how much does the staff trust anybody left in the sack?
3. Tauren Poole
This isn't three carries against Virginia Tech, and it won't be garbage time against UAB or Western Kentucky either. Saturday will be Poole's first real chance to be the man in an offense that should rely on him a ton. Here's another guy we really want to love. He doesn't need to run for 150 yards and artificially inflate expectations given the opponent. But you do want to see him break some solid runs, hold on to the football (I'm afraid we were totally spoiled on this one with Hardesty, and we don't know it yet), and not give us reason to doubt that the offense can go through him.
The Vol we'll be the quickest to turn on. Michael Palardy has done nothing for this university yet, but we can't wait to see him. Lincoln has done some good things for this university, but he's also been the kicker of record for some horrible moments. It's no stretch to say that the first time he misses, we're going to want the other guy. Joel said it best on the podcast last night: Dooley can burn up a lot of goodwill by sticking with Lincoln if he struggles, and I'm not sure a kicker's worth it. Only way to prevent all of the above? Rediscover the form he had during the regular season in 2007, when he earned Freshman All-America honors. We'll want the next miss to be his last...so if called on, he needs to do his job.
1. Matt Simms
Like Poole, we don't need the spectacular from our brand new quarterback this week. If he throws for 300 yards and 5 TDs, we'll chalk it up to the opponent. But if he throws three interceptions, we'll chalk that up to the opponent too. Simms just needs to manage the team and move the chains, and not do anything that makes anyone doubt him going into the Oregon game: complete more than 50% of his passes, limit the really terrible decisions that new quarterbacks tend to make early on, show he's capable of handling the role. I'm excited about seeing somebody who doesn't carry all of Jonathan Crompton's baggage, but we're not going to get a good read on him until at least next week...unless he comes out of the gate firing interceptions against UTM. Play within yourself, lead the team, win the game...we'll figure out the rest as we go along.
What are you watching for on Saturday?