Tennessee is a 28.5 point favorite against Buffalo. Though the Vols have struggled with MAC foes in recent years - 34-23 over Ohio in 2009, 13-9 over Northern Illinois in 2008 - Tennessee's play against Cincinnati put to rest most of our fears about overlooking the UABs and Wyomings of the world. The Bulls have been game against BCS foes Pittsburgh and UConn, but that was the Big East and this is the SEC. And this will be a Tennessee team eager to take the field, two weeks removed from the bad taste of Gainesville.
It's a game Tennessee should absolutely win. And as a result, this game is about this game, but it's also about the rest of the month of October.
The college football season will be six weeks old when the Vols face Georgia next week. By that point most teams in this league will have played three or four big games. But the Vols have only Gainesville, surrounded by the Big Sky, Big East, MAC, and an off week. And by the time Tennessee and Georgia kick off next Saturday night, the mighty Gators should already have a pair of losses to Alabama and LSU.
If this was the 90s or the first seven years of the last decade, that would matter more. But the 2011 Vols aren't thinking about the math necessary to win the SEC East. Both because the team is so young, but also because of what's coming up.
After this week, the tone changes. Georgia, LSU, Alabama, South Carolina on consecutive Saturdays. Great or small, whatever hope remains for this 2011 season will be tested over the next four weeks. And so for the entire month of October, what Tennessee figures out about itself without Justin Hunter on Saturday will be very important.
The Vols need to win, but they need to look good offensively too. We will not get any definitive answers about this offense without Hunter against Buffalo - that'll come later in October. But there's a big difference for this young team between feeling good about itself after Buffalo and going into the Georgia game still trying to figure it out.
So here are the faces we'll be watching most closely on Saturday, to help the Vols win now and compete later:
Tennessee could run for 200 yards against Buffalo, and it's not going to make us really believe anything. That's really the same for all of these categories - you're not going to see anything that'll make you feel 100% confident going forward, but you could see things that make you nervous.
The Bulls are 80th nationally against the run at 167.25 yards allowed per game. They did shut down UConn (42 carries, 80 yards), but keep in mind, so did Vanderbilt (36 carries, 89 yards). Tennessee should have every opportunity to run the football against these guys if they want to.
We've been asking all if week if they will, however. Will Derek Dooley and Jim Chaney elect to - ahem - pound the rock and restore the confidence of the offensive linemen and the tailbacks?
Because offensive linemen are often a nameless mob, Tauren Poole has been an easy target for UT's woes in the ground game. Poole is 11th in the SEC in rushing, 8th among number one options in the league. An easy cry from the masses is, "Play Marlin Lane!" The next guy is always better in times of trouble, but Lane has 23 carries for 60 yards. Perhaps his touchdowns make him stand out more, but as a tailback he hasn't shown us anything to make us believe he's a better option than Poole...not yet, anyway.
No one needs a bigger game for the Vols than Poole on Saturday. The fact that he was most of our offense against Oregon and LSU last year has been replaced by the flash of Tyler Bray and Poole's at times perceived and at times real hesitancy in hitting the hole. No matter how much the Vols will run the football the rest of the year, the question of who is the number one option needs to be answered. Is it still Poole?
Watch the carry distribution tomorrow. Does Lane get more than the seven per game he's currently averaging? Does Rajion Neal get involved again? And what of Devrin Young, who we'll see for the very first time? The local product isn't built to be the number one option in the run game, but will the Vols see what he can do from the backfield?
Running for 200 yards would be great. But I'd be just as interested to see on whose shoulders we get there.
You can plug Neal and Young in here as well if the Vols choose to involve them in the passing game.
Here too, it's not that any one of these guys can prove themselves as Hunter's replacement against Buffalo. The Bulls have been great against the pass statistically - 26th nationally at 183 yards allowed per game - but again, consider the competition. Tyler Bray will be a different level.
So if Arnett pulls in another eight catches, we'll hang on to it for another week. What's more important to see is guys like Dallas get involved. And what you don't want to see is a bunch of drops and miscommunication.
Bray might throw for 500. But again, how does he get there? What percentage of the passing game will not involve Da'Rick Rogers?
The Offensive Line
Let me reconsider that previous statement that it's most important for Poole to have a big game on Saturday. It's hard to isolate one offensive linemen as having a big game, but the thing I want to see most is James Stone hit Tyler Bray in the hands.
These guys have heard it for two weeks. Pass protection has been solid, but run blocking has been very poor, with Stone's snaps and Alex Bullard's penalties at the center of the storm. Will Dooley throw Tiny Richardson and Marcus Jackson in the mix? Do the Vols have a true sense yet of who their best five guys will be if everyone is healthy?
Incredible defenses are coming in just a few weeks. Stone and the rest of the offensive line need to be at their best when they face LSU and Alabama. They can take a step forward here.
Here's a bonus one on the other side of the ball. We seem pretty comfortable with the front seven; freshmen linebackers may have made a few freshmen mistakes, but both A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt have also made some really big plays. The defensive line has been pretty solid.
The secondary hasn't been bad, it's just unsettled. Now Izauea Lanier moves into the starting lineup, and more snaps for Brian Randolph at safety could mean more opportunity for Prentiss Waggner at corner. Buffalo's passing game involves two guys - starting wideouts Alex Neutz and Marcus Rivers have 59.2% of the receptions and 68.3% of the yardage in Buffalo's passing game. So it's a big day for UT's starting corners in Lanier and Marsalis Teague.
Sooner or later Tennessee needs to settle on the right combination of guys in the secondary. But so far we've been sorting through nine different options, and that doesn't even count Byron Moore, who is yet to record a tackle. Watch who plays where on Saturday. Hopefully we find a group we're comfortable with - Aaron Murray and the rest of October are coming soon.