As is Butch Jones' wont, Tennessee got the bad taste from last week out of their mouths by shellacking an overmatched opponent, racking up 55 points in 2.5 quarters and cruising to a 55-10 win over the Western Carolina Catamounts Saturday in Knoxville. It can be hard to learn many lessons from a matchup against a vastly inferior opponent, but the Trending Report is here to try. Where are the Vols getting better, and where are they worse?
- Special teams. It wasn't all butterflies and rainbows, with a kickoff out-of-bounds and one good return by WCU, but special teams play looks like a weapon right now. Yes, Western Carolina struggled to tackle, but Trevor Daniel dropped all four punts inside the 20, and Vols returners took three kicks to the checkerboards. One was called back for a (borderline) block-in-the-back, but Evan Berry and Alvin Kamara looked extremely dangerous in the return game, and the Vols have consistently won the field position battle this season. Even Aaron Medley, who has struggled at the start of the season, made both (admittedly short) field goal tries. Winning on special teams isn't enough to win games by itself, but it sure helps.
- Glimpsing the youngsters. Kahlil McKenzie has been a bit under-the-radar since the season started. He's had little playing time, and even this gif of taking a double-team and shoving both guys back towards Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield (who immediately threw a pick) garnered little notice. But we saw more McKenzie this week, and he didn't disappoint. On one play, McKenzie occupied two blockers until the running back went by, at which point McKenzie freed himself and forced a fumble that would be recovered by fellow freshman DT Shy Tuttle. Naturally, both could use polish, but they have the raw power to wreak havoc right now, even as the competition gets tougher. On the offensive side of the ball, Quinten Dormady got his first significant action and completed six of his first seven passes for 93 yards and a touchdown. Which, by the way, went to fellow freshman Preston Williams, who had three catches for 98 yards and two TDs. There's a lot of young talent on this team, and while Tennessee doesn't need many of them to start immediately (at least not anywhere except linebacker), the faster they grow up, the better for the Vols.
- Health. No major injuries. LaDarrell McNeil came back. And, while this wasn't from injury, Danny O'Brien is back too. That's good for a team that is still short of an SEC-quality depth chart.
- Opportunity. The matchup against Florida this weekend might be the biggest of Butch Jones' tenure at Tennessee, to some degree because of the curious lack of pressure. Yes, the Florida game is still circled on Vols fans' calendars, but this one isn't getting near the hype that graced the Oklahoma game two weeks ago (or the Florida game last year), and it won't be played in front of 102,455 home fans who are desperate to be impressed. Yet despite the relative lack of hype, this game is Jones' biggest chance to move the needle this season. Yes, Georgia and Alabama will be big opportunities, but the degree of difficulty there is significantly higher than it is against a rebuilding Gators team that's as young as Tennessee and is also in the first year under a new coaching staff. Apart from those, there are no impact games left on the schedule. Finishing 8-4 would certainly be a sign of progress, but 8-4 without either a streak-buster (Florida) or a win against a heavy-hitter (Oklahoma, Georgia, Alabama) isn't a lot to get excited about--especially if Arkansas, South Carolina, and Missouri continue to look like they did this week. This is Tennessee's best chance to give the team some confidence that they can take that step forward and win a big game and to give the fans confidence that Butch is the man to lead that step. If they don't take advantage this week, it'll only get harder.
- Confidence in the offense. The team scored 55 points, but was anyone impressed with the offense? The Vols averaged just 5.7 yards per play, and while much of that was garbage time, Tennessee's first-string unit averaged just 6.2. Yes, that's good without context, but averaging 6.2 yards per play wouldn't have been enough to be in the top 25 in the nation last season, and when you're playing an FCS team, a top 25 performance should be a minimum standard. Couple that with being forced to kick four(!) times in their first six drives, and the offense wasn't generating many warm fuzzies. And that's before taking a gander at Oklahoma, who shut Tennessee down and then promptly gave up 38 points to Tulsa. Jones specializes in offense, but in his third year in charge, offense still seems to be holding the Vols back. They're facing an elite defense next week, and the offense needs to finally make good on all its skill position talent if they don't want to (yet again) force the defense to be perfect.
- Coaching to not get fired. It was Western Carolina, and there was really never any danger of losing. But a week after coming under fire for kicking a field goal from the one-yard line, Butch Jones continued the trend of making the safe call instead of the right call. Low-risk coaching decreases the risk of that one egregious mistake that puts you on the hot seat, but it also decreases the chances of winning. It's a common flaw in high-pressure environments, and it has definitely been one of Jones' flaws this year. This week, Tennessee kicked on a 4th and goal from the 2 and punted on a 4th and 1 in Catamounts territory, both in the first quarter. By the numbers, both are bad decisions. Neither decision hurt the Vols this week, but it's a troubling pattern as they enter SEC play.
- MIA-quez North. . . and Howard. . . and Pearson. Pig Howard and Von Pearson were the Vols' biggest weapons in the passing game last year, and while Marquez North still hasn't cashed in on his vast potential, he has all the tools to be dominant in orange. Yet the three combined for just four touches last week against Oklahoma and just five this week against the Catamounts. North was (badly) overthrown once by Josh Dobbs after a great job of getting wide open in the back of the end zone, but by and large, the three just weren't getting targets. While it's great to see success from guys like Preston Williams and growth from Josh Malone, getting production out of the most talented and experienced play-makers on the offense is one of the best ways to get a struggling offense on track.