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Mailbag Monday: Friday Edition

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Chuckie, you're supposed to do the Heisman pose AFTER you score, not before.
Chuckie, you're supposed to do the Heisman pose AFTER you score, not before.
Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to our new Monday Friday feature (this week only), the mailbag. Every weekend, we'll be soliciting your questions from the Saturday games: injuries, coaching decisions, bad drinking decisions, etc. This week, we're answering your burning questions from week one as we ready our tailgates for football time in Tennessee.

Q: How excited should I be about beating Utah State?

--my dad, Brentwood

First, let's establish some ground rules. I'm not one of those people who thinks that every win, no matter how horrible, deserves exaltation. To do so ignores Tennessee's long and proud football tradition, lacks perspective, and smacks of desperation and bourgeois striving. On the other hand, after the adversity of the last few years, looking askance at a convincing win over a decent opponent is churlish and ungrateful. Refusing to properly celebrate a win a the sort of behavior that should be relegated to the state of Alabama and #FSUTwitter.

Second, as to the substantive part of this question: you should be ecstatic. There's this bizarre narrative that's discounting Utah State for losing to Tennessee rather than crediting the Vols for the win. For example, Brian Fremeau's FEI rankings (which are based on drive performance, but are heavily weighted by preseason expectations for the first few seven weeks) dropped the minor league Aggies from #62 to #84, while the Vols improved from #73 all the way to... #62. This storyline is a bunch of retrospective nonsense, or as the French say, "le garbage."

Utah State is a very good mid-major team, and any argument to the contrary is factually wrong. The minor league Aggies won 19 games and lost 7 in the last two years, going 10-3 (2012) and 9-4 (2013), and return the same coaching staff (with the exception of two position coaches) and dark horse Heisman candidate Chuckie Keeton. Keeton looked mediocre against the Vols on Sunday, but he was an absolute terror on offense last year, because: STATS. Yes, he's returning from a major knee injury and lost most of his skill position players, but Tennessee held the preseason first team Mountain West QB to 4.1 yards per attempt and picked him off twice, which happened roughly zero times last year.

Tennessee also sliced and diced the Utah State defense (largely through the air), averaging 4.84 yards per play and making 8 of 18 third downs. Sure, on the ground the Vols only averaged 2.8 yards per carry (with a line that returned zero starters)... but that means they rushed for almost exactly the season average per play allowed by the Aggies' defense last year (which ranked #1 in adjusted line yards last year). Plus, unlike the secondary, Utah State's front seven returned 4 starters (three linebackers and a defensive end) and a depth chart loaded with veteran players. Bill Connelly projected the Aggies to finish 16th on defense (after finishing 8th and 9th in 2013 and 2012, respectively), and the Vols scored the most points against Utah State of any team in two years. Yes, two years, and that includes games against Boise State, Southern Cal, Wisconsin, Utah, Fresno State, and BYU.

Finally, let's call a spade a spade: Tennessee was a trendy upset pick this week among both the chattering classes (ESPN, SI, TSK) and the betting sharps, who drove the line down to -6 at game time from an opening -8.5. Instead of a close win (or, god forbid, a loss), the Vols dominated Utah State on defense and churned out 38 points on offense. As Tay Swift says, Haters gonna hate hate hate hate hate.

Q: When will Third Down for What get old?

--Gary, Knoxville

As long as it works, never.

Q: Is it okay to talk about how bad Justin Coleman sucks at football?

--Patrick, Arlington

Let's pump the brakes a bit on Coleman and his alleged lack of competence. At some point, a player is what he is, and blaming a player for failing to do something you already know he can't do is putting the shoe on the wrong foot. Take a look at the long touchdown pass Coleman gives up in the Utah State game, watching the tape from the ESPN video highlight package:

  • Utah State comes out in the shotgun, with four WRs and a tight end offset as a wingback on the right side.
  • Tennessee is in base 4-3 defense, with four down linemen, three linebackers, and four defensive backs.
  • The Vols appear to be running straight matchup one-on-one man coverage against the WRs, although it could be a zone. It's impossible to tell pre-snap because the video field isn't wide enough.
  • Coleman, playing on the outside against Hunter Sharp, has no help over the top, and is responsible for mirroring Sharp down the field one-on-one.

At the snap, Keeton takes a three-step drop (putting him around 7 yards from the line of scrimmage) and puts up a bomb for Sharp, who is running a simple go (aka "9") route down the sideline. Coleman initially has good inside leverage against Sharp, but just before the ball arrives, Sharp finds an extra gear and pulls away from Coleman. In desperation, Coleman reaches out and tugs on Sharp's jersey to try and prevent a big play, but fails to drag down the bigger WR. Touchdown, Utah State.

During the offseason, we talked about how moving Coleman from a starting position at cornerback to the nickelback position would be a better fit for his experience and skillset. Then, in the first game of the season, Coleman is put into exactly the same position that he was last year, forced to cover a bigger and faster wide receiver down the field with no help. The result is exactly what you'd expect, and the fault lies purely with the coaching staff.

[ASIDE: For more of the same, check out the JoJo Natson 39-yard run on the previous play: the defensive end (LaTroy Lewis) on the play side fails to hold his position and AJ Johnson overruns the play, creating a seam through which Natson bursts for a big play. The difference between this year and last is that Cam Sutton has the speed to knock Natson out before he scores.]

Q: Jacob Gilliam is out for the season. How does this affect our questionable OL?

--Will, Knoxville

This is one of those good news/bad news situations: whoever replaces Gilliam (Brett Kendrick, JUCO transfer Dontavis Blair, or a lineman-to-be-named-later) will be a higher-rated, more physically impressive player. Unfortunately, neither individual (in Butch-parlance) could beat out Gilliam in fall camp because of inconsistent performance. Based on what we've seen with previous offensive line shuffling, Bajakian seems to prefer the predictability of experience over the upside of talent, so whoever can develop mental toughness the most quickly will win this battle. For example, Coleman Thomas is undoubtedly a physical upgrade over Kyler Kerbyson, but moving Jashon Robertson to guard and Kerbyson to tackle largely eliminated mental mistakes on the right side of the line.

That said, losing Gilliam isn't the kind of disaster that losing Justin Worley or Marcus Jackson would be. Against Utah State, Bajakian often schemed to leave the outside defense end on the backside of the play unblocked, meaning that in a formation strong to the right side (meaning the tight end is lined up next to the right tackle), the left tackle often blocked in on the defensive tackle and completely ignored the defensive end. Why? Well, most of the core running plays from the shotgun have a rollout or QB option run involved. The handoff point is called the "mesh" and an unblocked end has to read the handoff and commit to either the RB or QB based on his keys. On Sunday, Utah State defensive ends/standup linebackers had a tough time creating pressure on Worley while worrying about run containment. The key to this type of play is the interior of the offensive line preventing any penetration and the quarterback making a swift, accurate decision, and the Vols were able to do both with aplomb.

If you've read the Most Important Vol column, you know that I expect to see a heavy dose of the power run game against Arkansas State. That means whoever starts at left tackle is probably going to end up with help from a tight end to set the edge and create mismatches.

Q: How existentially cruel is it for a fifth-year senior who originally walked on to the program, worked hard for four years, [and was rewarded by starting] the opening game of the season, to not even play a full game before getting knocked out for the year?

--Chris, Washington

Fate and the football gods are indeed cruel, but if there's any justice at all, Gilliam will be inducted into the only hall of heroes that counts:

Q: I'm a freshman at UT and a pretty big dude. Should I worry about being forced onto the football team as the new starting left tackle?

--Adam, Arlington

If you're already on campus, then Butch's Orange Mafia has already sized you up and rejected you. You might have been good enough to start for your single-A high school option team, but Cosey Coleman's alma mater has higher standards. On the other hand, if you're class of 2015 four-star offensive tackle Jack Jones... I'd watch my back or you might wake up in a locker room in Norman, Oklahoma, while Mike Bajakian lovingly tenderly creepily buckles your chin strap.

Hey, would you like all of the glory that comes from seeing your witty question immortalized for all eternity on a series of tubes? Submit a question to the mailbag by leaving a comment, tweeting @CobbWebbAttack, or emailing RockyTopTalk at the Gmail.