Josh Ward mentioned this on our podcast last week, and he's exactly right: there's a portion of any "Keys to Victory" piece for Tennessee this year that can simply be copied and pasted week to week: win the turnover battle, win special teams, win field position, minimize penalties, and get lucky. Against the good teams on the Vols' schedule - and LSU certainly qualifies - Tennessee is not good enough themselves to give the opposition any real help and expect to be able to overcome it. It was true against Oregon and Florida, and it'll be true the rest of the year: the Vols need to play clean football and hope the other team does not.
But beyond that, what do the Vols need to go right to have a chance in Baton Rouge? This is an LSU team that's 4-0 against North Carolina, Vanderbilt, Mississippi State, and West Virginia, teams that probably fall somewhere close to where the Vols are right now. Because of their schedule, it seems like LSU hasn't really had a down week yet, but with a trip to Gainesville coming up next week, perhaps we can hope the Tigers overlook us...
A much safer bet, though, would be that LSU is ready to make life difficult for the Vols, especially with their defense due to the presence of John Chavis. It's not exactly the same dynamic that we saw last year when Ole Miss played its best game of the year against us with Ed Orgeron on the sideline...but don't think for a second that Chief doesn't want to win this one a little more than the others, and don't doubt that this message has been conveyed to his defensive troops.
While the Tigers may have struggled some on the other side of the ball, a dominant performance from a John Chavis defense will be more than enough to win on Saturday. To counter, the Justin Wilcox defense will need to come up with its best performance of the year...and the LSU offense may be willing to oblige.
Matt Simms will be the best quarterback on the field...
...but against this defense, he may not look it. Likewise, the deadly duo of Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee may not be inspiring confidence from the LSU fanbase...but if the defense that UAB saw shows up again on Saturday, we're going to be a quick-fix for the struggles of the Tiger passing game.
If Tennessee wants to entertain victory, they can't be the exception to the rule with whoever LSU lines up under center. Check out Jefferson's game log this year:
- UNC: 15 of 21, 151 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT - 10 carries, 15 yards
- VAN: 8 of 20, 96 yards, 0 TD, 1 INT - 13 carries, 13 yards
- MSU: 10 of 16, 97 yards, 0 TD, 0 INT - 10 carries, 40 yards
- WVA: 10 of 22, 75 yards, 0 TD, 2 INT - 9 carries, 21 yards
Jefferson has taken five sacks for -37 yards this year, and some of those carries are also kneel downs, but even so you can see that he hasn't been overly dangerous with his feet; Jefferson's longest run of the year is 16 yards. In short, the guy has yet to make the jump from liability to strength for the Tigers...Tennessee cannot allow Saturday to be the day that happens.
With Jefferson and the passing game struggling, why is LSU 4-0?
Who is Stevan Ridley?
Before this year, if you'd heard of him it was only in relation to LSU's struggles in the ground game; last year the Tigers were 90th in rushing offense with only 122.7 yards per game, and Ridley had only 45 carries for 180 yards. But this year Ridley has come alive, topping the century mark against Vanderbilt and West Virginia, averaging 5.8 yards per carry on the season. It's not new information that Jefferson struggles in the passing game...and yet, Ridley still gets his yards against defenses that should now expect the Tigers to lean on him.
For the Vols, is Florida a worthwhile comparison? The emphasis on stopping the Gator offense two weeks ago was containing Jeff Demps - Tennessee did that (26 carries for 73 yards). The Vols also believed John Brantley couldn't beat them downfield, and he didn't (14 of 23, 167 yards) - those are Jefferson-esque numbers. Florida got 31 points on only 317 yards because they almost never punted thanks to 8 of 14 third down conversions. But if the gameplan for the Vol defense was to stop the RB at all costs and dare the QB to beat them downfield, that gameplan was relatively successful. Third down struggles have been well documented, and if the Vol defense continues to stay on the field little else will matter. But the Vols have already done a good job doing something similar to what they'll need to do against LSU's offense on Saturday.
Snap it, close your eyes, and pray
This may be the best plan of action for Matt Simms (and all of us watching) on Saturday.
Say what you will about 3rd and Chavis, but LSU isn't struggling in that department this year, and even if they suddenly start to because Chief is feeling nostalgic, we'll be right back to dividing by zero with our own offensive third down issues.
Say what you will about the mustang, but the key to the mustang was always an ability to get some sort of pass rush with just the three down linemen. Tennessee's best defenses had that capability because guys like Leonard Little and John Henderson were out there. LSU may have been one completion away from one of the all-time Chavis meltdowns against North Carolina this year, but when they're not "protecting" a big lead, LSU is getting pressure on the quarterback.
That the Tigers are 17th in the country with 11 sacks isn't what concerns me. It's where those sacks are coming from: 7.5 of them are credited to defensive linemen, including 3.5 for Drake Nevis. LSU isn't just getting pressure on the quarterback because Chavis is throwing all kinds of blitzes out there; they're getting pressure because they've got very talented defensive linemen who can get the job done on their own. And oh by the way, if you do get a pass off, Patrick Peterson is back there waiting.
On the other side, as we know, is a ragtag offensive line composed of mostly freshmen and sophomores that's given up eleven sacks in the last two games (remember when Erik Ainge was sacked only four times in all of 2007?). If LSU can blow past the offensive line and get to Simms without committing much more than their front four to QB pressure? I'm not sure how we get anything done.
It's an odd thing to be on the other side from John Chavis - a guy I've always liked and defended, all jokes aside - who led some of the best defenses in all of college football in the late 90s and early 00s. It's even more odd to find ourselves still struggling with the things that were overblown during the final years of his tenure: we still can't get any pressure on the quarterback, and we still give up third downs of all shapes and sizes. We lack the talent and the depth we enjoyed during Chief's most successful years here...and unfortunately, he may have found both in Baton Rouge. LSU's defense, combined with the Vols' offensive line issues, may give us a taste of our own medicine, a decade later.
Keep Hope Alive
As frustrating as things may have been with the Vols at times this year, the one thing we haven't seen yet is a wire-to-wire blowout. Tennessee was very much in the Oregon game midway through the third quarter, and very much in the Florida game in the fourth quarter. Last week was hideous...but hey, we won.
I fear that one of these weeks we're going to run into a team that simply blows our doors off from the very beginning, and demonstrates in all the ways UAB was unable exactly how far behind we are right now. If/when that happens, what will it do to this team, and how will Dooley respond? Because we did win last week, this is probably a team that's still playing with some confidence - and that's very good. LSU's offense may not be good enough to take it away from us, but the emphasis still has to be on The Process - are the Vols capable of doing more than just surviving? Can we and will we see improvement?
To win on Saturday, Tennessee's defense will have to lead the way. Unlike the offense, where the new line and the new quarterback allow for lots of grace, I expect more from our defense. I expect a performance similar to the one we saw against Florida, only with something better than giving up 57% of third downs. Art Evans and Herman Lathers should be back, and young guys like Jacques Smith and Corey Miller are earning more snaps to help with depth. A slightly better effort from our defense than the one we saw against Florida, and a slightly worse performance from LSU's offense than they've had all year? The Vols will have a chance. And if we can keep giving ourselves a chance, sooner or later this young team will mature and find a way to be the one that makes the fewest mistakes, and wins.
Which lesson will we learn on Saturday? I continue to be very interested to find out.