The stage is set.
Tennessee is 2-0 and ranked for the first time in more than four years. Florida is coming off a rugged road victory against new SEC foe Texas A&M and is also ranked. ESPN Gameday is coming to Knoxville. Tennessee-Florida finally means something again.
Are the Vols back?
It's a legitimate question that should go a long way being answered this weekend. If we beat the Gators in a rocking night-game atmosphere in Knoxville, I'm not sure it'll signify our return to the national scene. But as a UT fan who has had to endure seven consecutive losses to the hated reptiles, it doesn't matter how far "down" they are -- any win against them is huge.
We've done really all we can do in these first two games -- two convincing victories. Do I wish we had a definite go-to running back and was better converting short-yardage situations? Sure. Do I wish Curt Maggitt and Herman Lathers weren't a bit banged up? You bet. Do I wish we had a dependable field goal kicker? Yep, but by now, I'm used to failure in that department.
We have our flaws. But we also have the best skill-position players in the SEC. So, I'm reluctantly confident -- and nervous. So much so that when I thought about writing a GSU-related piece today, I just couldn't come to do it because A) Will and Jay had covered all the high points, B) you can only say so much about a blowout like that and C) nobody really cares anymore now. It's Florida week. But before we go full-focus on Florida for this week, let's take a look back at the trending report for the Georgia State cakewalk.
- Tyler Flipping Bray. Tennessee's junior quarterback was supposed to shred Georgia State. But any time you complete 13 consecutive passes -- even against air [which was, at times, Bray's only competition Saturday] -- it's saying something. That's where Bray's current streak still stands as he finished the game 18-of-20 for 310 yards and four touchdowns. His teammates think Bray is the best quarterback in the country. To earn that recognition, though, you've got to be able to do it in games like this upcoming week vs. Florida. I know I wouldn't take anybody over him ... this week.
- Relentless Pursuit Of Continuous Pressure. The Vols had three sacks and pressured the Panthers' quarterback seemingly every play. Seriously, how many times Saturday did it seem GSU's signal-caller was just trying to throw it into the first row because he was being pursued and there was nobody open downfield? I counted a million [or thereabouts]. Now, consider this: Florida's offensive line allowed EIGHT! sacks against A&M. That's, like, a lot. When Jeff Driskell had time, he actually made pretty effective decisions, completing 13-of-16 passes. He isn't the kind of quarterback who can likely torch you downfield, but with Sal Sunseri's pressure-all-the-time scheme, the Vols will try to keep him in duress. If they succeed, it will bode well for the Vols. [Dang, I gave up a key for Friday, didn't I?] I haven't forgotten A&M led the nation in sacks last year, but this UT defense isn't the one from the past decade. We can -- and should -- get to Driskell.
- Money-Makers. This is what I call Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson because, Vols fans, you'd better enjoy them this year. Ol' No. 11 -- "James" on Randy Smith's roster -- finished with eight catches for 146 yards and three touchdowns, becoming the first UT receiver since Chris Hannon to have a trifecta of scores in one game. CP was dynamic with a 61-yard kickoff return, an 18-yard rush and three catches for 71 yards. I sure hope we can capitalize on having two future All-Pros at receiver this season.
- No Extended Breaks. Last season, the Vols never seemed to come out after halftime. They'd play a good half and then hit the snooze button. In two games this year, UT has outscored opponents 23-0, keeping the pedal down on offense and making necessary defensive adjustments. If that happens this upcoming week, we'll have a much better shot at winning.
- The Big Orange Buzz. It's at a fever pitch, isn't it? It's just awesome. Tickets are at a premium for the upcoming game, we're being talked about all over the country, we're nationally ranked at No. 23, ESPN's Gameday is heading to town. It feels like old times. I hate to ever compare anything to 1998 because people will begin to think I think this team can win a national championship, but I remember it was my freshman year of college and we camped out all night for Florida tickets. Then, we beat them in a night game at Neyland, tore down the goal posts and went on to win a national championship. This year, the students sold out their 13,000 tickets in record time, and the excitement around the program is palpable. Again, we play the Gators under the lights at Neyland. Hopefully, we can have the same outcome.
- Tennessee Kickers From Florida. I am fed up with Michael Palardy. The time has come to make a change -- at least in short kicks. If I'm Derek Dooley, I do not allow the junior left-footer to kick anything under 35 yards. That should be Derrick Broadus territory until he misses one. I watched tons of football the past two weeks, and I didn't see anybody who kicked low line-drive knuckleballers. Palardy missed a chippie field goal and an extra point against the Panthers. Inexcusable. He hasn't quite reached fellow Floridian Daniel Lincoln territory yet, but I'm convinced he'll cost us a game this year at least. What is up with our kicker evaluations?
- Slumming In Short-Yardage. Third-and-1, fourth-and-1, third-and-3 -- no matter the short-yardage situation, the Vols aren't running for a first down, at least in the first two games. It's maddening. For all the improvement the offensive line seems to have made, UT really struggles when it has to get yards, and it doesn't matter who the opponent is. If there is one major worry right now, that's it. Since there is more than one major worry, it's Worry No. 1. One bright spot in the running game was freshman Quenshaun Watson, who didn't fit into this column but needed his name somewhere, I thought.
- Early-Game Defensive Jitters. Ripped. Shredded. Torched. Whatever verb you want to use, they apply to the Vols' defense in the first few series of each of the season's first two games. I don't know if it's communications jitters or just getting acclimated to the scheme they are facing, but UT defenders get off to a sluggish start. Sunseri's guys have been great in the second half, but against a quality opponent, that early lull can really hurt. The Vols even allowed GSU to light them up a couple of times early on Saturday, including two huge third-down conversions. That needs to shore up a bit. Quickly.
- Nagging Injuries. Herman Lathers has a sprained AC joint in his shoulder -- nothing serious but definitely nagging. Curt Maggitt has turf toe -- even if it's minor, it can be a major pain. Neither of those guys played against the Panthers but both are needed against Florida. The Vols also probably aren't quite ready to welcome back Christian Harris or Pig Howard to significant action just yet. Would-be contributors like Brendan Downs, Kenny Bynum and LaTroy Lewis are out. The Gators certainly have their share of bruises, too, but UT needs Lathers and Maggitt to be as close to 100 percent as possible. It could be much worse.
- My Frustrations With Saturday's Ticket Situation. Listen, I LOVE that we're possibly good again. I LOVE that Neyland will be buzzing and Knoxville is excited. But the negative by-product of all that is jacked-up ticket prices. It seems price gouging is everywhere, with people wanting around $250-plus for lowers and $150 for uppers for the game. The better the seat, the more ridiculous the price. So, I broke down and bought four together at face price from the Florida athletic department Sunday night. I'll be in the Gators section but given the buzz around message boards, I won't be the only Vols fan there. Still, I hate having to sit with the enemy. But I'm happy I saved my wallet a bit and I'll be in the house. In a game like this, that's all that matters. Go Vols!