A close game in Knoxville. That is Tennessee’s expectation this week.
Even with South Carolina seemingly hotter than it’s been all season, the Vols have a few things going for them. First, they’re coming off a bye week, while the Gamecocks had one of their longest trips of the season last weekend. More importantly, the Vols gained a lot of confidence from their overtime loss against then-No. 6 Georgia — even if Georgia went on to lose to Missouri at home the following week.
To find out more about Saturday’s noon matchup at Neyland Stadium — and how Tennessee feels entering the game — I reached out to Vols beat writer Evan Woodbery of the Knoxville News Sentinel. Evan is a terrific reporter and good friend. You won’t find better Tennessee coverage anywhere. Give him a follow on Twitter @TennesseeBeat.
Ryan Wood: Even though it was a loss, what positives did Tennessee gain from its overtime loss to Georgia?
Woodbery: It was easily Tennessee’s most complete game of the season and the Vols were in a position to beat the No. 6 team in the country — even one that was battered by injuries — in the fourth quarter. So I think they’re taking a lot of positives from that.
For the first time, the offense seemed to find its rhythm. Quarterback Justin Worley managed the game effectively, the running game was strong and young receivers made big plays. On defense, the young secondary that was supposed to be picked apart by Aaron Murray actually did quite well.
Wood: Tennessee has a brutal schedule, currently in the midst of playing five straight ranked opponents and seven in eight games. What are the program’s legitimate expectations during this stretch?
Woodbery: Tennessee entered the season with five games against preseason Top 10 opponents — Oregon, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama. Since then, two other teams — Auburn and Missouri — have emerged as potentially very dangerous games.
Given that, I think expectations have been fairly reasonable. (By SEC standards, anyway.)
This team’s ceiling is probably 7-5. The floor is probably 4-8. That leaves a slim margin for error. The Vols absolutely had to win the games they were supposed to win — like Western Kentucky and South Alabama. Any upsets they could steal against the Big Five would be huge.
Butch Jones has spoken openly of the first goal being six wins and a bowl trip. That’s still within reach, but it won’t be easy.
Wood: How much time will Butch Jones be given to turn things around? How much time should the rebuilding project take?
Woodbery: In a perfect world, at least four or five years. But that rarely happens anymore. Derek Dooley was fired after only three seasons; in fairness, I think he would have received a fourth year had there been even the slightest glimmer of progress to build on.
Obviously, on-field success is important. The team may be better in 2014, although there will be challenges associated with replacing a veteran offensive and defensive line. The Vols should certainly be improved in 2015 and 2016. Long-term, the Vols need a couple of top-five classes to narrow the talent gap with the top of the SEC. The 2014 class that Jones is assembling should be very good. But sustaining that recruiting momentum amid losing seasons is something that Dooley struggled to do.
Wood: What does Tennessee have to do to fix its quarterback problems?
Woodbery: I think Justin Worley Tennessee’s best quarterback option right now. So in that sense, the short-term challenge is maximizing his abilities and putting him in the best situation to succeed.
Over the longer term, the Vols have two promising true freshmen quarterbacks in Josh Dobbs and Riley Ferguson. No quarterback is currently committed in the 2014 class, but that could change.
Wood: After leading the SEC in tackles last season, middle linebacker A.J. Johnson isn’t posting the same, gaudy numbers this fall. Why have his tackle numbers dropped off?
Woodbery: The new coaching staff made a point in the spring of emphasizing how little those statistics meant to them. Being the leading tackler on one of the nation’s worst defenses wasn’t something to celebrate, they said.
I do think he’s having a better year in 2013 despite the lower tackle numbers. Coaches stressed to Johnson that they wanted a defense of 11 guys doing their jobs, rather than 11 freelancers trying to make plays. I can’t tell you exactly where all those tackles have gone. But Johnson — and the defense as a whole — has been better in 2013.
Wood: Who wins Saturday and why?
Woodbery: My official pick is South Carolina, 28-27. At the risk of repeating coaching cliches, Tennessee’s margin for error is, in fact, quite slim. So if the Vols repeat the Georgia game (which was turnover-free until overtime), they should be in the game until the end. But if Worley throws an interception or two, or the Vols give away free points, Carolina’s talent will win out.