Other than my time in the student section, I've sat on row 48 of section Z11 for my entire existence as a Vol fan. It's about five rows north of danger, underneath the upper deck overhang that provides shelter from the storms. In almost 30 years and through several monsoons, I've never gotten wet sitting there...until last night.
As debris was flying all over the stadium and the temperature was dropping fifteen degrees in fifteen minutes, I said, "I know this has to be a good sign for our season, I just haven't figured out how yet." ("Winds of change," said the woman who sits in front of me).
An hour and forty minutes and one football game later, I still feel like I learned more about human nature and why some people refuse to heed warnings and run until they see it with their own eyes than I did about our football team.
People will see what they want to see. So when I'm trying to get a handle on the 2011 Vols, what should I really believe?
Has Tyler Bray matured rapidly, or was that Montana?
Put me squarely in the camp that calls last night Bray's best game as a Vol. The yardage was a little down but the accuracy was way up - his completion percentage of 70.8 is way better than anything we've seen from him before, his previous best being 60% against North Carolina. He's still a sophomore and I'm sure they aren't gone forever, but how many stupid throws did he make last night? I'll give you one of the interceptions, and there was an out route that could've been in pick six territory a half-step later, but one was negated by pass interference and the other fell incomplete.
The things we were told to worry about - tempo, consistency, confidence - were non-factors. The Vols took zero delay of game penalties, had few issues lining up correctly, and Bray threw it like the kid we remembered from last fall.
Of course, it was Montana, who basically gave Justin Hunter the entire middle of the field in order to prevent getting beat by the fade, a trade the Vols happily made for 81 yards and a touchdown. The Grizzlies had the same experienced defense Cincinnati will bring to Knoxville next week, so it'll be interesting to see if Bray can repeat Saturday's performance. But from the player we were most interested to see, I thought we got exactly what we wanted.
Are we really this bad at running the football, or did Montana show us looks we hadn't seen before?
If you believe the postgame quotes, it's the latter - several offensive linemen in postgame interviews commented that they hadn't seen what the Grizzlies threw at them on film at all. Still, the Vols looked a step slow hitting the hole, and there were always a bunch of white jerseys there when they hit it at all. Tauren Poole seemed like he was right there on several runs, but again, this was Montana...being right there against Montana could translate into not being there at all against the SEC.
Lots of words have been and will be spoken about the run game this week, but let's not forget this: it's a good sign when the Vols can win a game by 26 points and have a back that runs for 98 yards, and we're complaining. It means things are getting back to where they're supposed to be. Clearly, I'm not for the sort of advanced nitpicking that finds a way to complain about Randy Sanders' playcalling in the National Championship Game. But Tennessee teams of old that put on a performance like that in the run game against a lesser opponent (which is what we have to call them, because Tennessee teams of old didn't play FCS foes period...) got criticized for it. And rightfully so, then and now. We're clearly past celebrating victory for the sake of victory. The run game has to improve. I hope a lot of it was faulty preparation, but I doubt it.
Do we not have a third receiving option we trust, or are we hiding it?
When you ask for vanilla and you get it, it's probably unfair to complain. So if the Vols can go with base personnel against Cincinnati and score 40+ points again, let's do it. I hope the coaching staff has stuff they're holding close to the vest for DeAnthony Arnett (who played but I don't believe was thrown to) and Vincent Dallas (who I saw once recovering a fumble, I think).
Did Tyler Bray even throw a pass to a new guy last night that wasn't Marlin Lane?
Defense: Young or very young?
We fall for this every year: all these new names in training camp, all these quotes and scrimmage stats, and we believe these guys are going to rip someone's head off the first week of the season. And we forget that even Eric Berry took three weeks to get rolling.
It wasn't that Curt Maggitt and/or A.J. Johnson were bad last night, it's that I didn't notice them. You know who I did notice? Daryl Vereen, because he led the team in tackles. You know who tied for second? Eric Gordon, Rod Wilks, and Marlon Walls (along with Austin Johnson and Jacques Smith - the one guy on defense who did live up to the hype - all with four). It's like all the guys we wrote off were really pissed about it. But Vereen also clearly played a lot to lead the way in tackles. I'm really interested to see how heavily the Vols will still lean on guys who have at least been in the Wilcox system as the season goes along.
And let's be honest: we miss Janzen Jackson. Right now we miss him a lot. I still believe in Dooley's quote about the team being worse but the program being better, and eventually the team can catch up. But they weren't there last night, and Cincinnati's bringing a whole lot of offense to Neyland Stadium in six days.
This defense will get better...but how fast?
Dooley's Pants: Awesome or very awesome?
So, on his postgame radio show, Dooley said that the coaching staff had been pushing him to wear a white belt and white shoes with that attire last night, but his wife had veto power and used it. Come on, Allison. We're a dangerous team with a coach that dresses to match. Embrace the madness.