It's game week for arguably 2011's biggest pivot-point for the Tennessee Volunteers, who will take on Georgia on Saturday night in Neyland Stadium in a game that could boost a stellar season or cement another mediocre season.
A 41-10 disposal of Mid-American Conference opponent Buffalo didn't exactly get the Vols prepared for the Dawgs, but it was thorough enough that it could have provided a confidence builder for a UT team needing a signature win to get the season rolling.
October started with a simple sizzle, but the Vols will be firmly in the frying pan from here on out the rest of this month, running the gauntlet of Georgia, LSU, Alabama and South Carolina. At least three of those [all but the tilt with the Tide] will be at home. Getting just one of those wins will be hard enough, and UT's best hope for that SEC W comes this weekend. So, let's look at the things that the Vols excelled at against the Bulls and the things that need much improvement heading into the schedule's meat.
- Tyler Bray and Da'Rick Rogers. This is a combination that UT fans hope they can get used to over the course of the rest of the season. With Justin Hunter gone for the year, we all knew Buffalo wouldn't have anybody who could hang with David Ricky, and boy, were we right. The key is whether or not Rogers will be able to maintain his dominant performance in the SEC. While he probably won't duplicate the numbers he had against the Bulls all the time, he has proven he's capable of being an elite No. 1. Erik Ainge said Rogers is the best physical receiver in the country, and even though he's partial, that's high praise. Bray continues to make NFL drool-worthy throws. It's just essential he keeps cutting down on the mistakes. Bray finished 21-of-30 and there were five more drops or you're talking NCAA-record type numbers.
- Third is Just Another Down. We've harped and harped on it, but the Vols just continue to be unbelievably efficient in their lifeblood plays -- drive-sustaining conversions. UT finished a remarkable 12-of-16 on third-down conversions against Buffalo and would have been perfect in the first half had Mychal Rivera hung onto a bullet-strike touchdown attempt by Bray. For the year, the Vols are first in the SEC with a 62.1% 3rd-down conversion. LSU is a distant second at 46.5%. Against Florida, though, the Vols were just four of 12 [33.3%]. So, which is it? The Vols must keep converting against the Dawgs if they're going to win.
When Is Youth No Longer An Excuse? I'm talking about the big plays allowed on defense here. Again, we were forced to sit there and watch an opponent reel-off a 60-plus yard touchdown run that marred an otherwise superb day from our defense. On that play Curt Maggitt got sucked in, as did our defensive end, the safety came up and Buffalo QB Chazz Anderson took a zone read untouched to the house. It's so, so, so frustrating to give up one of those every game. I know these kids are going to make blunders like that, but big ones will cost you conference games, and we can't have it.
Mistakes, Mistakes, Mistakes. While we're on the topic of players screwing up, the only team that stopped Tennessee on Saturday was Tennessee. Five big drops including Mychal Rivera's in the end zone, a botched squib kick, a fumble by Devrin Young, a fumbled snap, a blocked punt, Poole stumbling with wide-open field ahead of him. On and on and on. I know that this team is young [see above] and I know it's tough to keep focus for an entire game against an opponent that is so inferior, but the Vols have got to quit shooting themselves in the foot so many times.
Where are the Field-Flipping Momentum-Makers, Wilcox? As bad as Tennessee was last year on defense, you could count on the Vols [read: Waggner, Prentiss] to make a big turnover to rally a little momentum. That hasn't really happened this year. The Vols missed two ideal interception opportunities against Buffalo -- one by Lanier and the other by Teague -- and UT forced zero turnovers against the Bulls. For the year, UT is -1 in the turnover-margin department, ninth in the SEC. It's time the Vols made some breaks on D.
Tick, Tick, Tick, Tick, BOOM. That "tick tick" noise? That's the clock slowly running on and on and on between the time the ball is snapped to punter Matt Darr and the time he kicks the ball. You could read War and Peace in the time it takes him to get off a punt. While everybody on the UT sideline was bragging on and patting and congratulating Darr for having the presence of mind to pick up his blocked punt and run it for a first down, I was too busy being angry at the "protection" and the time it took Darr to get the kick away. That's two blocked punts in two weeks, and while this isn't solely on Darr, he really needs to work to get the ball off quicker. Surely, I'm not the only one who thinks that. Right?
- Needing a Running Lane. Where in the world is Marlin Lane's breakout game? The coaches keep giving the freshman opportunities, and he continues to struggle to get any big gains. Lane has shown a knack for scoring touchdowns -- much like classmate Arnett -- but he really needs to make strides into becoming a more complete back. For someone coaches raved about as much as they did in the preseason, he's had a tough time with his coming-out party. We need Lane to become the lightning to Poole's thunder.