The Tennessee Volunteers will welcome their first opponent to Neyland Stadium on Saturday since wiping Missouri off the field 66-24 back on November 12, 2022. And, speaking of wiping teams off the field, that should again be the case on Saturday against the Austin Peay Governors.
Yes, the coaches will say all the right things about this matchup, but the bottom line is that this is going to be a game to fine tune a number of details against an opponent who should accommodate more than enough misfires and mistakes to not let it hurt you. That’s what buy games typically are.
With that being said, there are five things that I will have my eye on Saturday...
5) Can the Vols stay healthy?
Tennessee is beyond the Georgia State/UMass/etc. days in year 3 of Josh Heupel’s tenure. The Vols are simply too good to struggle like that against inferior competition anymore. And yes, my wounded Vol syndrome has healed enough to write that. No need to knock on wood.
What they can’t have happen is see players get hurt and not be available for extended time. That should be the first and foremost consideration in a game like this, to speak the obvious. Cedric Tillman’s injury against Akron with the Vols up 28-0 cost him a large chunk of the 2022 season. If Tennessee jumps to a huge lead by the middle of the second quarter, it begs the question of how much the starters should play the rest of the game. And the Vols suffered a trio of injuries against Virginia in the third quarter, so seeing players of significance in the game in the second half would be a bit of a surprise to me.
4) Speaking of injuries, who plays better in Keenan Pili’s absence - Elijah Herring or Arion Carter?
After Heupel advised that Squirrel White and Omari Thomas avoided major injury, it seemed the Vols escaped Virginia unscathed. That turned out to not be the case, as Heupel advised on Wednesday that Pili is going to miss some time after suffering an upper body injury against the Cavaliers.
So eyes should be firmly planted on LBs Elijah Herring and freshman Arion Carter to see who will fill Pili’s shoes. Herring was solid and had a team-leading 5 tackles last Saturday. However, Carter has really turned some heads likely has the higher ceiling of the two. Regardless of who ultimately gets the nod, the Vols need Pili’s successor to play at a high level, and Saturday will provide a first look at who will get the first opportunity to do that.
3) Can the defensive line reserves dominate against the Governors’ starters?
Virginia head coach made a very encouraging statement about Tennessee’s defense after the Vols’ dominant defensive performance. He said the speed and depth of Tennessee’s defensive front was impressive and actually shocked them.
That’s been an issue with Tennessee earlier in Heupel’s tenure. Having the quality depth to handle being on the field as much as the Vols’ defense typically does.
If Tennessee’s defense can decimate the Governors’ offensive line for four quarters the same way they did against Virginia, then that’s another sign that perhaps the Vols have the quality depth to be able to stay fresh and not fade out late in games during the season, which is of paramount importance for Tennessee.
2) If Tennessee punts, how will Jackson Ross look?
This one might not actually come up much on Saturday, but if it does, Ross will hopefully perform FAR better than he did against Virginia. The freshman’s errant boots of 17 and 27 yards set Virginia up with amazing field position, with the Tennessee defense bailing him out with stops. He did step up later with a 50-yarder and upped his average to 35.8 on 5 kicks.
However, shanks will bite them against better competition, so the Vols will need more out of their new punter when the competition cranks up next week in Gainesville. A good performance Saturday would go a long way towards chalking up Week 1 to freshman jitters.
1) Can Joe Milton and his receivers show better timing than they did last week?
I know that the Vols can run the ball all over Austin Peay. Pounding them into submission doesn’t prove much. What are useful are live reps in the passing game to work on timing, accuracy, and route trees in advance of one of the biggest games of the first half of the season at Florida.
Milton was shaky at times in the first half against Virginia, with the running game eventually taking over and putting the game away. A first-half game plan with a higher pass-to-run percentage than we saw against Virginia in order to work out some of those kinks would be wise, especially against a team that’s less likely to make you pay for mistakes.
This needs to be the week when Milton and his receivers start clicking.