A new season is upon us, and we're back at trying to take sixty minutes of data and draw meaningful conclusions about the state of the Vols. Our first data point: a 59-30 victory over Bowling Green that was less comfortable than the score indicated. For those who are new to Rocky Top Talk this year, the Trending Report is a weekly feature in which one of our writers (me) gives his take on where this week's Vols seem to have improved, where they've gotten worse, and where they've held steady. If you think I'm seeing something wrong, or if you noticed something that I missed, feel free to keep the discussion going in the comments--that's what's great about RTT: the conversation doesn't stop with the article!
Week one was a bit of an odd one to assess for a Tennessee team with sky-high expectations. On one hand, they scored at will and covered the spread easily. On the other hand, they allowed 550 yards of offense and 30 points to a MAC team that was near the bottom in offensive efficiency last season. That first piece of information, on its own, should reinforce the high expectations for this year. The second, on its own, should induce panic. How does it all look on closer examination. The Trending Report is here to sort it all out.
Week one overreactions. Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara are the best 1-2 combo in the country! Emmanuel Moseley can't defend at an SEC level! Tennessee's offense can keep them in any game! Tennessee's defense is holding the Vols back from taking the next step! It's almost impossible to avoid. We've been waiting eight months for football, and we now have sixty minutes of real game data with which to adjust our preseason perspective. It's easy to overreact to one game at the best of times, but when it's game one and there's no other data, it's even easier. And sometimes week one shows us a lot. Week one in 2014 showed us that South Carolina's defense was not what we thought. But sometimes it doesn't. Remember how Texas A&M jumped immediately into the top ten in September of 2014? Remember how people thought Florida had a good offense after a 65-0 drubbing of Eastern Michigan to open last season?
The Trending Report has a bit of a different perspective than usual this week, because I had to DVR the game, so I watched already knowing what the kneejerk reactions had been and could examine them without the heat-of-the-moment emotions. Even without watching, it's easy enough to pump the brakes on the offensive hype train. Bowling Green had an atrocious defense last year and lost seven starters. Tennessee dominated them, but domination of Bowling Green doesn't prove that the offense has gotten better. Lots of offenses dominate Bowling Green.On defense, the DVR viewing was a lot more helpful. Yes, Tennessee's defense struggled at times, but it didn't struggle consistently, and most of those struggles came down to the same two factors, which we'll discuss in more detail later. But a high-tempo game and a few big plays by the Falcons made the stats look a lot worse than the performance. And more specifically, regarding Moseley, who is drawing most of the ire I've seen, it's important to remember two things: (1) Moseley played pretty well as a true freshman, and it's much more likely that he had a bad game than that he became terrible. (2) Moseley got beaten deep on two consecutive, memorable plays, but those were the only two plays the entire game on which he was beaten deep. He did allow some easy catches underneath late in the game, but that was in the second half when Tennessee led by double digits, and it may've been by design.
- The uptempo offense. If you were wondering whether Mike DeBord knew how to call an uptempo offensive game, wonder no more. The Vols offense was smooth, efficient, and fast. Tennessee wasn't mistake free and doubtless looked better than they are because of a struggling Falcons defense, but they looked comfortable playing quickly and were significantly smoother than against the mediocre defenses on last year's schedule. How much better the offense has gotten is open to question, and they will need to take more than a small step forward to produce against the best defenses on the schedule, but they have clearly gotten both better and faster.
- The return game. Cameron Sutton could not be stopped on punt returns (and continued to be Cam on defense, blowing up a screen and allowing no catches on balls thrown his way), and Evan Berry broke off a big kickoff return in the third quarter. Special teams have been a strength under Butch Jones, and the return game looks better than ever. With so many coin flip games on the schedule, making hay in the return game could be the edge Tennessee needs to turn close games into close wins.
- Newcomers living up to camp hype. We didn't see much of the star recruits on the defensive line (and hopefully they will display their potential on the field sooner rather than later), and Quinten Dormady was only allowed one throw, but the rest of the hyped newcomers made their presence felt in game one. Jauan Jennings led the team in receiving with 56 yards on three catches, Alvin Kamara ran for 144 yards and 2 touchdowns on just 15 carries, and Darrin Kirkland Jr. recorded a sack and knocked the ball loose (although it was--controversially--ruled that forward progress had stopped prior to the fumble). Vols fans can hope this is just a taste of a future that will come sooner rather than later. Continued quality performance would be especially helpful from Kamara and Kirkland, who can provide desperately needed answers to the questions "who will help shoulder the running load?" and "who is the answer at middle linebacker?"
- Defending a second downfield receiver. Tennessee has no problem against a team with only one deep threat, because Cam Sutton continues to be one of the best corners in the country. But those second, third, and fourth coverage spots were concerning against Bowling Green. Emmanuel Moseley was beaten deep twice, Malik Foreman was beaten deep three times, and Micah Abernathy was beaten deep three times. And I'm not talking about "great coverage but allowed a completion after a perfect throw." That happened a couple times too, but there were at least eight times where Bowling Green receivers got a step on the Tennessee DB going deep. Only Moseley was unfortunate enough to see Matt Johnson deliver the ball on the money every time he was beaten, but all three non-Cam corners who got significant time saw their men get past them on more than one occasion. The optimist here will point out that this was Abernathy's first game as a true freshman, and that he should improve. And that Moseley had performed well last year and shouldn't be written off after two plays. And that Justin Martin was a highly rated JUCO corner who was banged up in camp, and there's still a solid chance he competes for playing time. But the fact remains that the Vols had a rough game on the back end, and in our one-game sample, Foreman looks like a serious downgrade from Rashaan Gaulden. It may not be worthy of panic, but it's a concern.
- Linebackers in coverage. The pass defense shows up again, but this time, it's not because of struggles in the secondary. Bowling Green had two drives (their first touchdown drive and the fourth quarter drive that ended in a fumble inside the UT 10) that were fueled entirely by hitting open receivers that should've been covered by linebackers. On the Falcons first touchdown drive, they picked up a quick 38 yards by putting two receivers on the left side against just one DB. Both times, the underneath receiver had an easy catch with room to run. Neither times was a defender within sight, and to my amateur eye, it looked like Jalen Reeves-Maybin was the responsible party. Later on the same drive, the Falcons scored a touchdown when Curt Maggitt lost a tight end in coverage. The optimist here should point out that these are game one mistakes that should be easily fixable in the film room. Colton Jumper's fourth quarter failures in coverage, on the other hand, look like simple lack of speed. Unless Kirkland can take his job, he's going to be a liability defending the pass.
- Aaron Medley. Medley was solid as a freshman, and it's not time to panic yet, but missing a pair of field goals in ugly fashion is definitely a step down from 2014. Medley needs to bounce back quickly with numerous big games on the horizon.
- Time left for Marquez North to cash in on his potential. In 2013, North's production was sporadic, but his highs were very, very high. Consistency issues could be explained by him being a true freshman who had played a different position in high school, and glimpses of his potential made him look like a future all-SEC player. Two years later, it's time for him to finally be an all-SEC receiver. He has a world of talent, and he's not young anymore. Yet he had 0 targets against Bowling Green. The reasons for his lack of production can be tough to pin down. He has struggled with injuries the last two seasons and is currently recovering from a fall camp knock, so that may be a partial explanation. Beyond that? It's not like he's never open--Josh Dobbs missed an open North early in the game, choosing instead to try to scramble for a first down (it didn't work)--but not having watched an All-22 feed, it's hard to tell how much of his lack of targets comes from Dobbs not seeing him and how much comes from him struggling to get open. But whatever the reason, all the potential in the world means nothing if you can't follow through on it. This is North's junior year. If he's going to become a star, this is the time.
- Big game hype. The defensive performance against Bowling Green might've put a bit of a damper on Tennessee's spirits, but the week two matchup that was circled on our calendars in preseason hasn't lost a bit of luster. It's Tennessee's home opener, it's just the second matchup of top 25 teams in Neyland since 2006, and it's 100% winnable. Concerns about the defense have moved the preseason line a hair in Oklahoma's direction, from Tennessee -1.5 in July to a pick'em on the Tuesday of game week, but this is still Tennessee's chance to break back onto the big stage, and it isn't a scrappy underdog fighting for respect--it's a battle of equals. Vols fans have a chance to bring back the Neyland of the 90s on Saturday, and the team has a chance to take their biggest step yet towards returning to the Tennessee of the 90s. The game we've been waiting for since January is almost here.