Sitting at 3-5 with just four games left in the season, the Vols know that each game becomes more important than the last as the year winds down.
This week’s matchup with UAB is the start of that trend. The Blazers represent a beatable, yet troublesome opponent. Tennessee can thank a ball-control, versatile UAB offense and a tough UAB defense for that.
But as with every game, there are certain matchups that if won, can make life a bit easier for the team in orange.
Let’s go ahead and take a look at those three matchups for this week.
1. UAB’s wide receivers vs. Tennessee’s secondary
The Blazers actually throw the ball less than the Vols (184 attempts vs. 216 attempts), but are much more efficient (154.67 vs. 134.55) when they do. They even have more touchdown passes (15) and yards (1,763) on the season than the Vols (13 and 1,711).
Much of that has to do with the trio of Austin Watkins, Kendall Parham, and Myron Mitchell. All three receivers have at least 20 receptions on the year and all three average at least 17 yards per reception. All three are explosive playmakers that can eat up yards in chunks - and all three can do it in a variety of ways.
Watkins is 6-foot-3, 205-pounds and is the cousin of former Clemson and current NFL receiver Sammy Watkins. He knows how to use his size to his advantage, but also has the speed to round out his game. Parham is your smaller, shiftier guy, but don’t be fooled - he can beat you deep as easily as he can make you miss in the open field. Mitchell is basically a hybrid of both players and will be tough to deal with, as well.
Jeremy Pruitt even praised UAB’s receiving corps earlier in the week.
“They are explosive, Pruitt said when discussing the Vols’ next opponent. “I mean, you watch the tape. They’re making people look like they’re standing still, they’re running by them so fast. They’ve created a lot of explosive plays, and these same guys turn around and they’re the returners in the return game on special teams. They have dynamic playmakers, and we’ve got to do a great job of containing them.”
Tennessee’s secondary has been good in an overall sense this year, but there have been moments where there have been some major slip-ups. Overall, the Vols are 52nd in the country when it comes to passing efficiency allowed, but Bryce Thompson and co. will need to be on the same page this weekend.
2. Tennessee’s offensive line vs. UAB’s defensive front
The offensive line played very well against a talented South Carolina defensive front last week, which is good, because the Blazers have a very good front, as well.
The quartet of Garrett Marino, Tony Fair, Kristopher Moll, and Noah Wilder is one of the more effective groupings in the country. Marino and Fair are the two linemen who create the room for Moll and Wilder to make plays wherever they’re needed. Marino leads the team in sacks (5) and will be the guy creating pressure for the Blazers.
Moll is an all-around type of playmaker. He leads the team in tackles (51) and tackles for loss (8), but he’s second on the team in sacks (3.5) thanks to the 3-4 defense that Bill Clark employs the majority of the time.
The Vols could be without both Darnell Wright and Jahmir Johnson on Saturday, which would leave a major hole at right tackle. What makes that situation even more disappointing is the fact that the Tennessee’s offensive line was really beginning to gel before both players were injured.
Regardless of the circumstances, Will Friend and the offensive line are going to have to figure out how to slow down the pass rush and the second-level guys on Saturday or else the Vols could have a lot of trouble scoring points.
3. Tennessee’s pass rush vs. UAB’s pass protection
It’s a good thing that Darrell Taylor is likely to play in this game. The Vols are going to need him in a major way when these two teams face off.
That’s not just becuase Taylor is the best pass rusher on the team, but it’s because UAB’s pass protection is very good. The Blazers have allowed just five sacks through seven games - the fourth-least amount of sacks allowed in the country - which is somewhat of a surprise considering Clark had to replace four starters from 2018.
Someone other than Taylor has to step it up this week. Darel Middleton will return after being ejected in the second quarter of the Gamecocks matchup and Greg Emerson has been playing well recently, but the Vols need someone from the second level to get home this week.
We will probably see some secondary blitzes on Saturday to help get the pass rush in Tyler Johnston III’s face. Jeremy Pruitt has been very good at drawing and dialing those up, and the calls have been effective when they’ve been made.
But it doesn’t matter how the Vols get to Johnston, they just need to get there.