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Friday, October 8, 2010

Behind enemy lines: Tennessee edition

By now, you know all the stats. That Tennessee and Georgia will both have losing records when they beat for the first time since Teddy Roosevelt was President, and neither is ranked for only the second time since Franklin Roosevelt was in the White House.

Well, I bet you didn't also know that as we speak, a man named Roosevelt Skerrit is the prime minister of the Commonwealth of Dominica. Did I just blow your mind? Do you need a minute to compose yourselves before you continue reading? I'm sure you do.

Andrew Gribble covers Tennessee for The News-Sentinel in Knoxville, Tenn. Andrew was kind enough to answer, in great depth, some questions about the Volunteers. I was also kind enough to answer his about the Bulldogs, which are linked here.

1. From being there in person and reading their body language, how well (if at all) will Tennessee rebound to the circumstances of the LSU loss?

AG: On Tuesday, Tennessee's first practice, it was definitely still hanging over their heads and us reporters will still asking them about it. A couple veterans, such as wide receiver Gerald Jones and safety Prentiss Waggner said the practice was OK, but not ideal and that it was noticeable that a few players were bothered by the game still. Wednesday, though, was a different story. Time heals all wounds, even ones as wide as the one caused by the debacle that was Saturday afternoon in Death Valley. If Tennessee comes out lackluster and gets run over by Georgia on Saturday, it won't be because of the LSU game. That's a poor excuse.

2. How porous is Tennessee's depth? I've seen Derek Dooley quoted as saying he essentially has a team of first- and third-teamers.

It's as bad as I've ever seen an SEC team, and I covered Auburn last year in the wake of Tommy Tuberville's departure. The Vols are nowhere near the NCAA scholarship maximum of 85, and there are plenty of former walk-ons on the roster who have earned scholarships to make that number just a bit more respectable. Dooley said it earlier this week: When the Vols lose a player to injury, it's like losing two. The difference was apparent last Saturday against LSU, when running back Tauren Poole, linebacker Herman Lathers and Jones returned to the lineup. This is a team that can go from respectable to atrocious in a hurry. Pay attention to the left tackle situation before game time Saturday. Dallas Thomas is questionable with an ankle sprain. His loss would cause an entire shuffle on the offensive line, one that certainly makes the Vols even worse at protecting Matt Simms.

3. Let's talk Tauren Poole. Georgia had a ton of problem tackling South Carolina's Marcus Lattimore, who just kept getting yards up the middle. How comparable is Poole to Lattimore, and how much does he figure in the Vols' offense?

Both those guys are roughly the same size and both have done significant damage behind two of the worst offensive lines in the SEC. It'd be amazing to see what Poole or Lattimore would be able to do behind the lines of Alabama or Auburn. Poole is obviously vital to the Vols' offense and he's been the most consistent piece. Look at the second half of the UAB game, when Poole went down with a thigh injury. The Tennessee offense was absolutely stagnant, barely able to pick up a first down against a team that 1) Got the doors blown off it Wednesday against UCF, and 2) Has to play some of its regular season games on a Wednesday. Poole, in my eyes, has to be one of the more underrated players in the conference, considering that he's sixth in rushing yards (427) despite combining for just 46 against Florida and UAB. Putting up 109 against LSU isn't much to sniff at, either.

4. Now let's talk Matt Sims. Georgia's secondary has turned the likes of Chris Relf and Tyler Hansen into one-game stars. How capable is Sims, and what about his receivers?

There's a lot of vitriol for Simms among UT fans and I just don't get it. Among the Vols' litany of problems, what Simms has done thus far ranks near the bottom. For what he lacks in flashiness, he makes up for in efficiency. Despite a two-interception performance against Florida, Simms really hasn't made many mistakes. His young receivers have made enough for him. Though UT fans would lead you to believe he's on a short leash, he's got one of the safest jobs in the SEC. Now, UT just has to protect him. There isn't a quarterback in the SEC who has taken more punishing hits than Simms, who has been sacked an astonishing 19 times in five games. It's a minor miracle that he hasn't been hurt yet. Taking those hits, though, has garnered some major respect from his teammates and has established him as one of the team's top leaders, even though he's only been here since the spring.

5. How will Tennessee defend A.J. Green? Or can they?

Can anyone, really? That's a tough one. Colorado had two cornerbacks that are NFL-bound, right? Yeah, Tennessee doesn't have that unless it can somehow make Eric Berry eligible for one game. The key word for Tennessee is containment when it comes to defending Green. Green has caught 15 passes in two career games against the Vols, but has yet to break the big one. He's averaging well below 10 yards per catch against the Vols, and that's something Tennessee's secondary will hope to build upon. It's actually something they've been good at, too, even though they're at the bottom in most SEC defensive categories. Tennessee is a surprising third in the conference in pass efficiency defense, which, after you carry the 1 and do something comparable to the quadratic formula, translates to the Vols being good at preventing big pass plays. They're averaging close to 6.5 yards per pass attempt, a benchmark of defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox's that is currently being met.

6. Finally, what do you think are the two or three keys for Tennessee in this game?

Though I slightly poo-pooed it in my first answer, the Vols can't come out hungover from last week's loss against LSU. There were plenty of things to build upon from that game, even though it will only be remembered for one fateful play. Tennessee showed that the UAB game was a minor anomaly and that it is, if nothing else, a team that compete with some of the best in the SEC. On offense, Tennessee's woebegone line has to protect Simms long enough to let him make effective throws. When given the time, Simms can be pretty darn effective and opposing defenses have had a tough time guarding Jones, especially when he's in the slot. On defense, the Vols simply have to tackle better. It's been a glaring inconsistency for this team, one that definitely reared its ugly head against UAB but only showed up briefly (Jordan Jefferson's 83-yard TD run on the first play of the game) against LSU.

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