We spent all summer talking ourselves into patience and Utah State, and in sixty minutes the Vols took a sledgehammer to both. So now here's week two and what was thought to be a lesser mid-major, an easier win than the one we told ourselves wouldn't be so easy. If the Vols can beat Utah State 38-7, surely they can handle Arkansas State, right? Nevermind the Red Wolves, we want the Sooners and the Bulldogs to find out what we're really made of, just in time to put it all together in the Florida game we've all known was the season's most important since last year ended. This is all just the prelude.
The most dangerous opponent for Tennessee on Saturday might be Tennessee. Arkansas State may be just good enough to be dangerous - 8-5 last year, 10-3 the two years before that under Freeze and Malzahn, another dynamic quarterback - but I'm curious to see how Tennessee's youth responds when things don't go so well.
We may have to wait another week for the answer to that question; I certainly hope we do. And maybe it's true even with so many freshmen that teams make the most improvement from week one to week two; if that's the case, I think talking about overconfidence going into Norman is a conversation all of us would've taken before the season began.
But if Justin Worley misfires, or if the run game finds life no easier a left tackle down against Arkansas State, or if the defense gets more exposed playing against an offense with greater talent distribution, or if the rain shows up early and things get sloppy?
How will Team 118 handle adversity if it presents itself against Arkansas State?
In their defense, I thought both the players and the coaches on the offensive side of the ball handled it well last week when the Vols had long stretches in the first half when things didn't look very cohesive. Tennessee adjusted its gameplan when the run game wasn't working and got Justin Worley dialed back in with incredible precision to open the second half and put the game away. There are clearly some issues on the offensive line with penalties and general inexperience as a unit, but for the most part the freshmen everywhere were as (or more) fundamentally sound as you could have expected and many of the veterans had improved in little ways that can make a big difference (we discussed both of these points at length on our podcast this week). This team showed maturity beyond its average age Sunday night.
It will need it again on Saturday, even if the Vols can simply out-talent Arkansas State. The Red Wolves, as Chris pointed out earlier this week, have shown remarkable consistency despite having four different head coaches in the last four years. But that consistency tends to play itself out in positive ways in the Sun Belt and negative ways outside the league; last year ASU lost at Auburn 38-9 and at Missouri 41-19, but also lost at Memphis 31-7. Still, we thought Utah State would compete because it had done so on the road against major conference foes in each of the last four years, so it would be foolish to now assume that just because Arkansas State hasn't put up a serious fight in a game like this it won't now against this Tennessee team.
The Vols would like to see continued consistency from Justin Worley, more strong play from the defense (because it will take more than one week to wipe out the assumption of poor play still hanging around from the Sal Sunseri days), and a marked improvement in the ground game. Do those three things and take care of the football, and Tennessee will win and we'll get another week to feel good about one of the season's most important words: progress. Whether the Vols win by one touchdown or four again, progress continues to be the more important name of the game.
The other most important word for Team 118: compete. What's coming after this looms in Death Star fashion, fully operational and capable of destroying your world with a minuscule window for success in stopping it. Tennessee's schedule will always be difficult and will always include Alabama on or around the Third Saturday in October, but this year the Vols also face legit playoff contenders on the road in games three and four. Looking back at last weekend and looking ahead to what's next, I feel like if the Vols can just get to October still intact, they're going to have a chance to meet everyone's goals and make plenty of noise along the way from there.
Which is why perhaps the most important word for Saturday could still be the one we tossed around before thrashing Utah State: escape. Take care of your business, take care of the football, and don't trip up on a team just good enough to knock you over if you get off-balance. Get to 2-0, then we'll see what happens against what could be two of the best teams in college football whilst wearing the white jerseys. And even if that part doesn't go so well, we can still enter October with plenty of time to do some winning.
We got our first one last week and everyone's excited, including two dozen newcomers who don't know any better about anything. There are some huge ones coming up. Don't let a young team think there is any game on this schedule more important than the next one. Don't get cocky. Get this one.