Last week's preview discussed a noted dual threat quarterback in Chuckie Keeton (since shut down) while asking questions of Tennessee's offense. This week's preview? Well, Arkansas State has a dual-threat quarterback, a stronger pass defense than we saw last week, but what may be holes in run defense. It's not intentional that we're covering the same ground, but that's how things are breaking. (Stay tuned next week for when we talk Trevor Knight! At least Hutson Mason can't run.)
WHEN YOU BREAK IN A NEW QUARTERBACK AND/OR COACHING STAFF
Arkansas State's coaching carousel the last four years has been impressive: Hugh Freeze (2011), Gus Malzahn (2012), Bryan Harsin (2013), and now Blake Anderson (from Larry Fedora's staff on North Carolina). The ASU brass has chosen well, and they've been smart in choosing up-and-coming coaches that generally fit a philosophy. If they leave in a couple of years, so be it, but there's a remarkable amount of schematic coherence for this much turnover.
This doesn't mean the players are identical, mind. QB Fredi Knighten is in his first year as a starter; he was a backup to Adam Kennedy last year. Normally finding comparable teams is helpful, but since the only game we have with Knighten on file is a 37-10 win over Montana State. We can do a little bit of digging if we widen our parameters, though: what if we look at Arkansas State QBs in road games in big stadiums the last couple of years1? That'll give us games from Kennedy and Ryan Aplin (2011-12). How have they done in composite?
Passing: 63.6%, 6.6 yards per attempt, 4 TD, 5 INT
Running: 3 yards per carry, 2 TD
We need to issue some caveats with those numbers. Aplin wasn't much of a runner, but Kennedy--who had 74 yards on the ground against Auburn--was a moderate dual threat.
It should be noted that Kennedy and Knighten were both on campus last year, but Kennedy won the QB derby. Knighten doesn't have the arm Kennedy did (unless you want to read into numbers against Montana State, which: I don't).
He also won't have the weapons, J.D. McKissic excepted2. Knighten probably isn't good enough to win this game on his own, but let's not take chances.
TENNESSEE SUCCEEDS IF: Knighten's held under one of the these data points: 6.5 YPA and 3 YPC or 6.0 YPA and 3.5 YPC. Bonus: McKissic gets less than 100 all-purpose yards.
TENNESSEE FAILS IF: Knighten breaks 7.0 YPA and 5 YPC. One of these may be okay; both are not.
THE PREDICTION: McKissic somehow gets about 90 all-purpose yards, but Knighten struggles to break 6 YPA. He does, however, get about 4.5 YPC.
WAIT, AN ACTUAL PASS DEFENSE
Unlike Utah State, which was breaking in everyone who mattered in the secondary, Arkansas State is literally breaking in nobody new. No, really; nobody graduated from this secondary. That alone presents a new challenge; Tennessee's WRs can't depend on inexperience like they could last week.
Arkansas State has one of the better mid-major defenses in the NCAA; since we can literally use last year's numbers as a guideline, the Red Wolves pass defense allowed 55.2% completions on 7.0 YPA and a 20/9 TD/INT ratio. They were just around NCAA average, so we'll look at a (slightly more forgiving than last week) comparison to 2013 numbers3. In that sample, Tennessee had a 58.5% completion rate at 5.5 yards per attempt, 4 TDs, and 5 INTs. (Three of those INTs came against South Alabama.)
So that's not great and screams a bunch of short passing routes. This was kind of the passing game we saw last week, but midrange passes should be possible as well. I doubt we'll see much in the way of yards after catch, but this game should be better for the bigger wide receivers; that's good news for Marquez North, Jason Croom, and Von Pearson, and less so for Pig Howard. However, playmakers in playmaking spaces applies here.
TENNESSEE SUCCEEDS IF: 7.0 YPA or mote. Utah State was good, but we need to see comparable numbers against a defense that has experience.
TENNESSEE FAILS IF: 5.5 YPA or less. Last year's numbers can't and won't work this year.
THE PREDICTION: 6.9 YPA, which is close enough to a success. This is also assuming Worley can't get his deep pass on; it's way earlier to have strong YPA numbers when you can hit a couple 30-yard completions through the air.
WHO WANTS TO FACE A NEW DEFENSIVE LINE?
Okay, so the Arkansas State defensive line isn't entirely new and they weren't great last year, allowing 4.72 yards per carry. Again, let's go to the comparable 2013 opponents4: 4.37 yards per carry, 4 TD. Those are okay numbers, but once again we'll note those numbers are less than the opponents' season averages. (I can't wait until we can use 2014 numbers, hopefully.)
Obviously, we can't just apply a 5 YPC/3 YPC standard/failure rate without a little bit of thought put into it. The offensive line struggled to get much of an interior push going until late in the game and they didn't use much of the fly sweep or other off-tackle type runs. (Based on what we saw of the tackle play: great!) Arkansas State isn't as strong schematically or in depth as Utah State, so this should be a slightly safer test for a young offensive line. Jason Gilliam's injury does make things trickier, but if Tennessee largely avoids tackle runs, this may not matter.
(Hunter chimed in with a solid point here: they were reading the DE on the weakest run blocking side most of the game. Smart move, Mr. Bajakian.)
However, the line will still need to do enough to help keep chains moving. Tennessee's passing down success rate last week was way better than in 2013, but when in doubt standard downs are way better for the offense than passing downs, so more standard downs, please.
TENNESSEE SUCCEEDS IF: 4.7 YPC or more. Again, let's just set Arkansas State's 2013 values as the baseline, because the defense should be able to do enough without the offensive line turning into a huge plus. (Not that anyone would complain.)
TENNESSEE FAILS IF: 3.0 YPC or less. Let's not go through this again.
THE PREDICTION: 4.1 YPC, likely knocked down by a couple of turnstile sacks.
If Tennessee had struggled with Utah State, I'd be more concerned about facing a similar but less-acclaimed version of Utah State. However, the biggest problems that affected 2013 Tennessee-namely, a lack of edge speed-seems to have been addressed. With that, Tennessee's need for offensive dynamism goes down some and literally an average offense should be enough.
THE SCORE PREDICTION: 28-14 Tennessee. This might be a touchdown short in both sides, but the line (-17 as this is written) feels just a tad too aggressive for a noon game to call for a cover. Regardless, Arkansas State will have some success (McKissic is a better #2 than anyone Utah State had), but Tennessee is set up schematically to at worst limit damage on both sides.
1. In our case: 2011 against Illinois and Virginia Tech, 2012 against Oregon and Nebraska, and 2013 against Auburn and Missouri.↩
3. South Alabama, South Carolina, Western Kentucky, Auburn.↩
4. Kentucky, Florida, Auburn, South Carolina. We messed the teams up a bit just to throw you.↩