Tennessee's game last Thursday night against the Appalachian State Mountaineers was a rude wake up call both for the team and for the fans. It wasn't one of those sunrise alarm clocks that slowly fades from dark to dawn with birds singing in the background, it was more like jumping out of bed so fast you stick to the ceiling because your bed is on fire. The good news, though, is that we are now awake and alert.
Or so we hope. That theory will be tested against the Virginia Tech Hokies in the Battle at Bristol Saturday night before the largest crowd to ever attend a college football game and a national television audience with nothing else to watch. What do the Vols need to do to this week to prove that last week they were not themselves? Here are my keys to this week's big game.
One of the things we learned from some terribly frustrating moments last season is that the team comes closer to its potential when running Josh Dobbs is part of the gameplan. It seems as if the coaching staff makes a calculated decision before kickoff whether they'll need Dobbs to run to win, and if they think they can win without that, that's what they'll do. But this offense is at its best when Dobbs is a real threat to run on every play, and with last week's near miss, this isn't a game to attempt to win with one hand tied behind your back but with both fists swinging. Perhaps they should just go ahead and run the best offensive package they have as much as they can. If they get so far ahead that they can then protect Dobbs by putting him on the sideline, that works, too, right?
We'd also love to see more of Alvin Kamara and more of that package that frightens opponents even before the snap because they're looking at Jalen Hurd, a Josh Dobbs who's a threat to run, AND Alvin Kamara all in the backfield at the same time and wondering which way this monster is going to be moving when the play goes live.
Control the line of scrimmage
The offensive line got pushed around by smaller, quicker guys last week, and they're going to need to get that fixed immediately. Like this week. Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster is really good at what he does, and if the Vols get manhandled along the scrimmage line, it's going to be a long night for everyone. If the team isn't going to step out of character and start throwing the ball deep to stretch the field more often, then it’s on the o-line to get a push and open holes for the runners. The team averaged 224 yards on the ground per game last year and managed only 127 against App State. The big guys need to find their way into the season.
Actually lock in
The front of the Official Fan T-Shirt for the season boldly proclaims "Lock In," a phrase Butch Jones uses to implore the team to focus. The evidence from last week suggests that focus may have been a bit of an issue, though, and the spectacle that Bristol Motor Speedway is putting on this week is going to provide an even bigger mental test for the team. Among fans, the conversation has been more about the event than the matchup between the teams. You don't expect that the coaching staff will allow that to happen to the team, but with all of that ambient noise, you have to think that whichever team does the better job of tuning it out will have the better memory at the end of the night. Before last week, I would have had no reservations in saying that Jones always has his team locked in, but after last week, I wonder just a little.
Get your groove back
Many of us have said this many times since last Thursday, but we'll say it again: This is essentially the same team as last year but with a new defensive coordinator, and any expectations for the season should probably be formed by giving more weight to the evidence of last season than the evidence of the last game. Many teams we thought would be good weren't good at all in their first games this past weekend, and several more didn't look at all like themselves for some time before finding their groove. Florida State looked absolutely terrible for a half before looking like we thought they'd look. Even Alabama, who dominated Southern Cal, sputtered out of the gate. The Vols team we saw last week in the season opener was not the same team we saw last season, and it wasn't the team I still expect to see this season. They just need to find their groove, and this would be a wonderful week to do it.
My prediction for Saturday: Tennessee 31, Virginia Tech 20.