The Vols (3-5) are rolling right now. They’ve won two of their last three games (both SEC victories) and are trending in the right direction as the 2019 season starts to wind down.
This week’s matchup with UAB Blazers (6-1) is not only a chance to notch back-to-back victories for the first time this season, but a victory would leave the Vols in great shape to make a bowl game.
But Tennessee has to get past UAB before it can really start to think about the postseason.
The Vols are coming off their most impressive win of the season. It was an overall team effort — much like the win against Mississippi State - but in much more dominant fashion.
The running game clicked, both JT Shrout and Jarrett Guarantano played well, and the defense made plays. Hopefully the momentum from the past few weeks will continue into Saturday’s matchup, where the Vols are currently (+10.5) favorites.
But UAB isn’t a team to look over. The UAB football program wasn’t even around as recently as three years ago. Normally, one would think it would take a while to rebuild a program, but that certainly hasn’t been the case, here. Bill Clark was able to make his 2017 squad bowl eligible with an 8-5 record and upped the 2017 performance with a historic 11-3 record and Conference USA championship in 2018.
Clark’s teams are versatile on offense and rugged on defense. Tyler Johnston III had a breakout season in 2018 and has played pretty well so far in 2019, completing 60% of his passes and throwing for 15 touchdowns to 10 interceptions. He can also move the ball with his legs when he has to, which the Vols will have to account for.
Spencer Brown is the program’s all-time leading rusher, but he hasn’t been his usual self in 2019. He leads the team with 262 rushing yards, but is only averaging 3.3 yards per carry. A lower body injury caused him to exit the Rice game early and has also caused him to miss the last two games. Lucious Stanley is third on the team with 235 rushing yards and averages 5.1 yards on the ground. The Vols may see a 1-2 punch in the backfield on Saturday.
Austin Watkins and Kendall Parham are UAB’s leading receivers. Both average over 22 yards per catch and have 20+ receptions on the year. They complement each other well, with Watkins being more a big-body, go-up-and-get-it type and Parham being your smaller, shiftier guy who can also make plays down the field. UAB can beat you short, deep, or in the intermediate areas when it comes to the passing game.
The offensive line is solid in pass protection, but lacks in terms of establishing a sustainable running game. They’ve given up just five sacks on the year, but the Blazers average just 153 yards per game on the ground and 3.77 yards per carry. Tennessee’s defensive front should be the most talented front they’ve faced all year.
Garrett Marino is the best defensive lineman and leads the team with five sacks. If Darnell Wright can’t go, then it could be a big day for Marino. But UAB doesn’t have much of a pass rush outside of Marino, so it’s a possibility Will Friend could find a way to isolate Marino.
Kristopher Moll leads the team in tackles, tackles for loss, and is tied for second place in terms of sacks. He is active, fast, and is not afraid of doing the dirty work required of the position. He also has plenty of help in Jordan Smith and Adrienne Talan, as well.
The secondary is where UAB’s defense tends to take a dive, outside of the safety position. They lost junior Brontae Harris - arguably the team’s best corner - back in fall camp and since then, no one has really stepped up. Will Dawkins and Will Boling man the safety positions, with the latter notching the team’s only interception on the season.
What To Watch For
- Tennessee’s quarterbacks, again: Both quarterbacks played well against South Carolina and they face another tough defense in the Blazers. Will UAB render them ineffective or can they find room to operate like last week?
- UAB’s third down offense: They are terrible on third down, ranking 104th in the country and averaging a 35.6% conversion rate. The Vols are 92nd in terms of allowing third down conversions on defense (41.3%), so it’ll be interesting to see who can take advantage of the other’s weakness.
- Tyler Johnston’s mobility: The kid can move when he has to and it will be integral for Tennessee to stay disciplined.
- Shut down the run game: Clark loves to run the ball when he can. The Vols have to make this offense one-dimensional.
- Offensive consistency: The Blazers have one of the tougher defenses in the country and as we all know, Tennessee’s offense isn’t the best. The Vols can’t let UAB make plays on defense come Saturday.
- Quarterback: That’s just how this position will be described from here on out. Quarterback play has either made or broken this team in 2019. Nothing changes on Saturday.
- RB Ty Chandler: He led the team with 16 carries last week and is looking more and more comfortable each game. This feels like a good spot for Chandler.
- WR Jauan Jennings: Hopefully the Vols can get a repeat performance from Jennings a la the Gamecocks performance.
- DL Greg Emerson: With Darel Middleton out, Emerson will need to be the anchor on the defensive line.
- LB Henry To’o To’o: The Vols will need him to be on point when it comes to organizing the defense and making the correct calls on the field.
- CB Bryce Thompson: UAB has two really good receivers and Thompson will be responsible for stopping at least one of them, if not both at some point.
- Tyler Johnston III: This kid reminds me a lot of Zach Wilson, BYU’s quarterback. Not the most accurate and won’t kill you with his legs, but can do enough on the ground and with his arm to make you pay if you aren’t careful.
- RB Lucious Stanley: Even though Brown is the team’s leading rusher, Stanley may be the team’s most explosive back.
- WR Austin Watkins: It wouldn’t surprise me if Watkins were to go pro. He has all the tools to make it in the NFL, which will make him a threat on Saturday.
- DL Garrett Marino: He leads the team in sacks and is second with six TFLs. If Darnell Wright doesn’t play, then Marino could be in for a big day.
- LB Kristopher Moll: All this guy does is lead the team in total tackles (51) and tackles for loss (8.0), while tying for second place on the team in terms of total sacks (3.5).
- S Will Dawkins: Arguably the leader of the secondary, Dawkins has been huge for the Blazers ever since they lost junior cornerback Brontae Harris to a foot injury during fall camp.
If you’re expecting this to be an easy win, you may be in for a surprise.
Even though the Vols are double-digit favorites, it won’t stop UAB from coming in to Neyland and picking a fight with a 3-5 team. Bill Clark is one of the most underrated coaches in the country and always has his guys ready to play.
Tennessee will have to avoid the dumb penalties and turnovers if it wants to win this one without any worry. A clean game would likely lead to mistakes from UAB, considering they aren’t as talented, but a well-coached team always finds a way to stick around.
And that’s exactly what the Vols can’t do. They cannot let this team stick around. Even though they’ve improved their play, there’s no reason for UAB to not smell blood in the water when it comes to Tennessee.
Forget the spread. Just win the game. That’s the best-case scenario for Tennessee, and I think that’s exactly what happens on Saturday.