The Tennessee Volunteers (5-5, 3-4) are looking for their sixth win of the year as they head into this week’s contest with the South Alabama Jaguars (5-5, 2-5)
Don’t take the Jags lightly, however. And not just because they have a cool nickname. Greg Stewart’s defense is arguably the best unit in the Sun Belt and is a top-25 unit, nationally. The group could cause some problems for the Vols offense, but the Jags offense is a different story. That side of the ball is nowhere near as efficient.
Regardless, Tennessee needs to be all-in this weekend because it can become bowl-eligible with a win. That should be enough to not overlook the Jaguars, but as we all know, anything is possible.
- All-time series: Tennessee has won the only matchup of this contest, making it 1-0 against South Alabama.
- Largest margin of victory: The Vols won 31-24, back in 2013.
- Longest win streak: There’s only been one contest up until this point, therefore, the Vols have the streak, so to speak.
- 2021 offensive and defensive rankings: The Vols currently have the 23rd-ranked offense (52nd passing, 25th rushing) and the 97th-ranked defense (106th passing, 85th rushing). They average 36.1 points per game (18th) and have allowed an average of 29.5 points per game (89th). The Jaguars are 86th in total offense (51st passing, 101st rushing) and are 16th in total defense (31st passing, 22nd rushing). They average 26.4 points per game (76th) on offense and have allowed an average of 23.0 points per game (49th).
What To Watch For
- South Alabama’s quarterback situation: Jake Bentley tore his MCL on November 6 and hasn’t played since. He should be back for the season finale against Coastal Carolina, which means it’s currently the Desmond Trotter Show. Trotter isn’t your typical backup, however. He played a solid amount and was a starter in 2020, so there’s plenty of tape to study. There’s definitely a drop-off from Bentley to Trotter, therefore, it will be interesting to see how Tim Banks and the Vols defense attacks him.
- Tennessee’s defensive slide: The defense has been a pleasant surprise for the most part, but the cracks have started to show over recent weeks. Granted, the level of competition (Ole Miss, Alabama, Kentucky, Georgia) have everything to do with that, but still, you want to see a team improve as the season goes on, not get worse. South Alabama’s offense isn’t very efficient, so the Vols have a good chance to correct course this week.
- South Alabama’s defense vs. Tennessee’s offense: South Alabama’s strength is easily its defense. It’s a top-25 unit in terms of total yardage allowed, top-50 in terms of points allowed, and leads the Sun Belt with 14 interceptions. Both the pass defense and the run defense are top-31. There isn’t much of a pass rush, though, which should go a long way in helping the Vols set up explosive plays on offense. As long as that’s happen, UT will be just fine, but it will be interesting to see if the Jags give Hooker and Co. some trouble early on.
- The red zone: Based of Tennessee’s recent defensive performances, it’s safe to assume the Jags will get inside the Vols’ 20 a couple of times on Saturday, even if their offense isn’t very good. How South Alabama performs in those situations will be crucial in determining the outcome of the game. The Jaguars are dead-last in the Sun Belt when it comes to overall red zone scoring production and they have scored just 14 touchdowns on 42 red zone trips. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to play with a “bend don’t break” mentality, but the Vols have to make sure they don’t break if that ends up being the strategy.
- Time to go bowling: This is the most obvious topic of all, but it’s definitely worth mentioning. The Vols will reach six wins if they beat the Jags, which means they’ll officially be bowl-eligible, which is a huge win for Josh Heupel in his first season. South Alabama is looking for its sixth win, as well.
- QB Hendon Hooker: How will Hooker respond after what was probably his worst game of the year?
- RB Jabari Small: News Flash: Tiyon Evans’ status for this game is up in the air. So, it will be up to Small to shoulder the load (with some help, of course) this week.
- WR Cedric Tillman: Yep, Tillman was in this spot last week, but how could he not be here again this week after his 10-catch 200-yard performance against Georgia? He’s developed into the Vols’ best receiver, which is wild to think about.
- DE Byron Young: The Vols can’t let the Jaguars get going through the air and the pass rush really needs to step up.
- LB Jeremy Banks: Banks leads the team with 89 tackles, 9.0 tackles for loss, and is tied for the team lead with 4.5 sacks. Theo Jackson is next with 69. Banks has been solid in the middle and should be able to make more plays this weekend.
- CB Alontae Taylor: He’ll be matched up with Tolbert on most occasions, which will be a fun battle to watch.
South Alabama Jaguars
- QB Desmond Trotter: The third-year quarterback had an OK 2020 season before giving way to Bentley before this year. He’s a pocket passer like Bentley, so the Vols’ preparation should be around the same.
- RB Terrion Avery: Avery has been able to produce since taking over as the lead back, however, his efficiency isn’t where it needs to be.
- WR Jalen Tolbert: He’s the best receiver in the Sun Belt and is the primary source of USA’s chunk plays.
- DL Wy’Keviousn Thomas: The redshirt freshman has been a revelation for South Alabama with 42 total tackles, 5.0 tackles for loss, and 2.0 sacks on the year. The sky is the limit for the youngster.
- LB Quentin Wilfawn: He’s an excellent in run defense and can get after the quarterback from time-to-time, but the Vols should be able to win their matchups whenever Wilfawn is in coverage.
- CB Darrell Luter Jr.: South Alabama has 14 interceptions on the year and Luter has four of them. He’s easily the best corner on the team, but may not play due to injury.
This could be a sneaky-good game. South Alabama’s defense is pretty good and while the offense isn’t very good, it’s fair to wonder if the offense will be able to make some plays against a Tennessee defense that’s been on a decline the last few weeks.
And things get taken up a notch when you add in the fact that South Alabama is also fighting for a bowl bid. Plus, they get bragging rights if they win while UT wouldn’t receive any kind of special notoriety if it weren’t for this game possibly being its sixth win.Both teams have something big to play for. In other words: The Jaguars are playing with house money and have everything to gain with an upset win.
The key here is Tennessee’s fast starts. The Vols should cruise to a win if they come out and score a bunch of points in the first quarter, which has been the norm this year. That will allow Tennessee to manage the game in the way that it wants and it will also take away hope from the Jaguars. We all know what can happen if you let an underdog hang around. It will be important that the Vols squash any thought of that early on.
That’s where Heupel comes in. He knows what’s at stake and he’s had this team ready for every game. That won’t change this week. The Vols will be dialed-in and will play their game en route to their sixth win and bowl eligibility.