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Nine Thoughts on Tennessee-Western Carolina

Now the real work begins.

Y'all ready?
Y'all ready?
Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

1. That was a win, and that was pretty much what we thought. Everyone looked fine enough, for the most part. Joshua Dobbs and Jalen Hurd got out of there early, and Alvin Kamara did much the same. Derek Barnett and Jason Robertson picked up small knocks and were held out of the rest of the game (but could've played). The main goal going into yesterday: don't get injured. Tennessee did that, and while there are some fun ancillary stats—like Western Carolina going 0-for-third-down against the guys who will see 99% of the snaps this season—they don't really mean a whole lot. So: what can we take from the game?

2. Special teams is legitimately good for the first time in a long time. Kamara housed a punt (and almost housed a second, had he not stepped out at the 6—oh, and had there not been a block in the back; details), Evan Berry housed a kickoff, the punting game was solid, the backup punter got in the game(!!!). Those things are fairly repeatable skills. Quinten Dormady looked capable enough as a backup (I think he was running simplified reads). The wide receiving corps was the first time they've looked like a corps all year. The defense is going to be good unless injuries decimate the squad again.

3. I'm going to go insane with the way Mike Debord calls a game, though. Personal gripes: screen passes on 3rd-and-long, stretch plays to the boundary, speed option plays to the boundary. I have no idea what you're expecting with any of those plays. We haven't seen a stretch play to the boundary yet, but we've seen the first and last of those now. If someone can just burn those pages of the playbook, I'd be happy. (I saw about a dozen down-and-long screen passes yesterday. One of them—one!—gained more than three yards. I might've seen a couple stretch plays to the boundary, but the only speed option I saw was ours, which might be a sign, Mike.)

4. Honestly, I'm happiest with playing what amounted to a dead rubber when the rest of the SEC spent the week in separation mode. Alabama? Lost! Missouri? Won, somehow, in a 9-6 game with no field goals! South Carolina? Lost! Auburn? Lost! Arkansas? Lost, then got their head coach called out by Kliff Kingsbury! Florida? Won, because someone had to win the UF-UK game, again. Right now, it looks like the SEC is Georgia, Ole Miss, LSU, and Texas A&M at the top, and isn't it nice to only have one of those teams on our schedule instead of three of them? Meanwhile, Oklahoma's offense looks legitimately dangerous, just in case you missed that.

5. Now that Tennessee's entering play, we're in a weird spot. I'm not sure anyone is incredibly confident in the Vols in all phases of the game; however, outside of Georgia, Ole Miss, and LSU, I'm not sure anyone in the SEC feels good about their team. So, Tennessee's going to head to Gainesville with neither team really feeling great about where they are. Florida's talent looks like where they had talent last year. Will Grier has looked ...fine, I guess. Definitely capable against New Mexico State and East Carolina, definitely struggled against Kentucky but came home with a win. If you enjoyed the 10-9 strugglefest last year, I've got some good news for you: this year will be a slightly more competent version of that.

6. Unless either Florida or Tennessee comes out of next Saturday with a three-possession win, I can't imagine either team would feel great going forward either. If Florida wins, they're still dealing with an offensive-minded coach who may not have an offense yet. Sure, the winning streak against the Vols are intact, but can this team challenge for the SEC East? If Tennessee wins, the losing streak monkey will be off their back, but are we really sure a win over Florida is a sign they're going to be world-conquerors? This game feels like one of those 17-14 puntfests where each team scores on defense and Gary Danielson spends half the game wondering why Tennessee isn't running the spread and thinking Florida's running the spread. CBS: feel the excitement!

7. This is what happens when defense outpaces offense. Tennessee's defense looks to be good again, although terrible stats in aggregate caused by Bowling Green. That being said, allowing 4 yards/play against Oklahoma is top-20 material. Meanwhile, Florida's also allowing 4 yards/play. Both defensive lines are better than their respective offensive units.

8. You know what's winning? Punting. Punting is winning. No, seriously; Tennessee's averaging more than 6 yards/punt more than Florida so far, getting a net +10 yards/punt return in this Small Sample Size Theatre, and looks to be substantially better in the kick return game too. I'm not sure either team will crack 350 yards of offense, so these hidden yardage stats matter. They'll matter on Saturday, and they'll matter going forward. This is one of the best parts about reloading: all of a sudden your return men and your coverage units get faster, get off blocks a little quicker, cut off angles a little better, and you're netting something like 80 or 90 yards a game.

9. Going into the SEC schedule, the tools are there for Tennessee. The biggest questions are around confidence and mindset still; Western Carolina was never going to teach us anything about that. Can the Vols stay close on the road against a team who just left the crossroads? Can they handle adversity on the field if and/or when it happens? Can the coaching staff put the players on the field in position to be successful? Can the Vols put the boot on the throat of an opponent who isn't scared of them? If you want to be a Goliath, those answers need to be yes.