There's nothing the Vols can do to earn your trust Saturday night, but there are still plenty of things they can do to further damage both the perception and reality of this football team. And while "stay healthy" is still a primary goal, this isn't Georgia State, and the Zips can make things a little uncomfortable for the Vols if Tennessee so desires. So here's what we're most interested in seeing this weekend:
1. Defense Eliminates Big Plays
Sal Sunseri's first squad has given up 17 plays of 20+ yards in three games. If that sounds like a lot, it is: that's tied for 111th nationally, and among BCS conference schools only Wake Forest has given up more. As I'm sure you remember, Florida had six plays of 20+ yards in the final 20 minutes of action last week. It's an easier stat to swallow when your defense is also forcing sacks and turnovers, but when you come up empty in those departments as the Vols did against the Gators, you pay dearly.
So a big question all week has been how correctable UT's defensive lapses are. I still like to think that it's not a talent issue, and that means it can and should get better. We knew this defense would suffer early, now the Vols need to adjust whatever they can to ensure it doesn't suffer often.
So it's a nice little test this weekend as an up-tempo Akron team with 14 plays of 20+ yards under its belt comes to Knoxville. I don't expect Akron's defense, which gave up 441 yards to Florida International, to present much of a challenge to Tyler Bray and the Vol offense. But the Zips do appear to have at least the potential for shootout mode, having scored 104 points in their last two games. The Vols could win this thing 56-28, sure. But we'd all feel much better if the defense can make a noticeable improvement, take away big plays and eliminate breakdowns. The sooner the Vol defense moves from liability to strength, the better, and this team can at least take a step in that direction Saturday night.
2. Distribution of carries in the run game
Guess who leads the SEC in carries per game?
Last week it was all Rajion all the time, and as Brad mentioned Tuesday on our podcast, I think Rajion got all of the yards that were available to him. Neal is still listed alone atop the depth chart at RB, but I'll be curious to see if the Vols keep plugging away there. Rajion averages just over 3.5 yards per carry - again, better, but not great.
I'm personally not a huge fan of the tailback-by-committee method, so I'm okay if we don't give five carries each to Rajion, Devrin Young, Marlin Lane, and some mix of freshmen and end arounds. But I am curious to see if the Vols are going to just have Neal be the guy, or go to some kind of change of pace option with either Devrin Young, Pig Howard, or more wildcat packages every week. The 2012 Vols will never be led by the ground game, but it does have to be a positive factor for Tennessee to win meaningful games. It's safe to say we're better at it at this point, though Akron isn't going to produce any additional revelations. I'm just curious to see if the coaching staff will continue to ride Rajion or balance more of the load.
3. Tyler Bray plays well
Bray should have a field day against the Zips much the way he has against Georgia State, Montana, Buffalo, Memphis, etc. I'm not too worried about the whole "he didn't even watch the second half!" thing from this week - I think context clues suggest he meant he didn't watch it by himself in addition to seeing it with Chaney. Either way, I don't think Bray is aloof. But I do think there's a reason "frontrunner" gets thrown around more often than not with this football team.
I don't need 500 yards from Bray in this one, I just need a good effort off a really tough loss. You can take however bad we feel and multiply it for the way it makes the team feel, and if it's hard for us to get excited about Akron I'm sure human nature will lead to more of the same for the team itself. If Bray is continuing to mature, I'd simply like to see him come out and play well against a team he should dominate. Can he rise above all the negativity and the loss and keep getting better?
4. Eliminate stupid penalties
The Vols are third in the SEC in yards per penalty (7.19), which means most of what we're doing is ticky-tack five yard nonsense. We mentioned this on the podcast as well: in Derek Dooley's tenure the Vols have been penalized 9+ times in a game four times. One was against Vanderbilt in 2010. The other three are each of Dooley's three tries against the Gators. Something just happens to Tennessee when they see Florida.
So now that the Gators are behind us and guys like Tiny Richardson have another one under their belt, it would be really nice to see this team come out and avoid false starts and illegal formations. It would be even more impressive considering this is a hard week to get 'em up for, and is an environment conducive to laziness. But we have to stop shooting ourselves in the foot with nonsense before it costs us again, and this would be a good place to start.
5. Don't miss any extra points (and making a field goal wouldn't hurt)
Remember a couple years ago when one of our keys was "Catch a punt"? And how we joked about what that said about the state of the program? Yeah, it's not funny anymore.